CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The boys sure backed NASCAR into a corner on this one.

Determined to give drivers more leeway this season when it came to policing each other on the track, NASCAR opened the season with a relaxed “boys, have at it” attitude. It was interpreted to mean NASCAR would look the other way at a nudge here, a spin there and all the retaliatory bumping and banging that goes on over a very long season.

But no one could have predicted NASCAR’s first true test would come a mere four races into the season following a frightening accident at Atlanta.

NASCAR on Monday found itself in the center of a dilemma over what to do with Carl Edwards, whose intentional wrecking of Brad Keselowski late in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 ignited a heated debate about just what’s permitted under this new policy.

Emotions are high in almost every corner, and no decision NASCAR makes will satisfy everyone.

What first must be figured out, though, is what is everyone is so upset about?

Is it that Edwards returned to the track down 153 laps, intent on retaliating against Keselowski, and after trying for at least one full lap, succeeded with a deliberate nudge?

Is it that the high-speed contact sent Keselowski airborne in a spectacular flip that could have caused serious harm to Keselowski or any number of fans in the grandstands?

Or, maybe the issue is that NASCAR wasn’t properly prepared to deal with the ramifications of allowing drivers free rein on the racetrack.

All three are valid points.

First up is Edwards, who is on a long list of drivers on the losing end of Keselowski’s aggressive charge into NASCAR’s top level. Although Denny Hamlin had the most public feud with Keselowski, there is no shortage of top-name drivers who privately pledged they’d exact their revenge this season.

Edwards’ most obvious run-in with Keselowski was on the final lap of last April’s race at Talladega, where Keselowski’s nudge sent Edwards flying into the fence in a wreck some may argue was more frightening than Atlanta. But the two race against each other weekly in two series, and Edwards’ hinted at a far deeper history with the unapologetic Keselowski.

So when early contact between the two knocked Edwards out Sunday, he was ready for revenge. He deliberately wrecked Keselowski and has so far been rather unrepentant about his action.

Edwards had little to say after a postrace meeting with NASCAR. But he minced no words in a Facebook posting late Sunday night.

“My options,” he wrote, “Considering that Brad wrecks me with no regard for anyones safety or hard work, should I: A-Keep letting him wreck me? B-Confront him after the race? C-Wait til bristol and collect other cars? or D-Take care of it now?

“I want to be clear that I was surprised at his flight and very relieved when he walked away. Every person has to decide what code they want to live by and hopefully this explains mine.”

Opinions were split, though, perhaps fueled by the severity of Keselowski’s crash.

There was no similar outrage when Hamlin fulfilled his promise of payback on Keselowski in last year’s Nationwide Series finale.

But because Keselowski went airborne, bounced off the retaining wall, and had to climb from a cockpit so crumpled it looked more like an accordion than a car, there’s been a cry for serious sanctions against Edwards.

It’s left NASCAR to sift through the evidence. On one hand, this is no different than a traffic infraction: Run a red light and nothing happens, you maybe get a ticket. Run a red light and kill someone, now you’re looking at vehicular homicide.

So now NASCAR plays judge and jury, and its decision will reverberate through the rest of the season.

A severe punishment is akin to a death sentence on the “have at it” attitude.

A significant fine, points deduction or probation likely will back Edwards into a conservative mode that could alter the way he races the rest of the year.

And no action at all, well, that could promote repeat behavior from Edwards or others.

Nobody wants to see the Wild West re-enacted on the track every weekend, but “boys, have at it” was a well-intentioned idea that doesn’t deserve to be scrapped because one incident took everyone, including Edwards, by surprise.