Monday, November 13, 2017

COMMENTARY: In The New NASCAR Playoffs, Enemies Are An Unaffordable Luxury

When you’re racing for a championship, enemies are a bad thing. With every lap critical and every position vital, ill will is a luxury that no championship contender can afford.

Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott learned that lesson the hard way at Phoenix Raceway Sunday, when a recurrence of their recent feud cost Hamlin an opportunity to race in Sunday’s Championship Four event at Homestead Miami Speedway

Two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, leader Elliott spun on Hamlin’s front bumper with just a few laps remaining, slamming the Turn Three wall and costing him a guaranteed spot in the Championship Four. Payback – whether intentional or not – came Sunday at Phoenix, when Elliott muscled Hamlin out of the groove on Lap 270, then squeezed his Fed Ex Toyota into the frontstretch wall. The incident created a tire rub that sent Hamlin careening into the fence five laps later, ending both his day and his championship dream.

"We got ran into the fence by the 24," said an angry Hamlin after leading a race-high 193 laps Sunday. "We had a bad pit stop and didn’t make any adjustments. Our car got really tight and we were just battling all we could to keep our track position. We allowed our competition to get close to us."

Elliott's crash set the stage
Hamlin accused Elliott of intentionally wrecking him, saying, “It just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances. I got into him and he chose to retaliate. I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”

Hamlin’s spotter, Chris Lambert, was even more outspoken, saying, "We tried to let (Elliott) go for two laps. But he was set on staying behind us, set on accomplishing what he finally did. We moved up the track to give him the bottom and even slowed down to let him go. But he just slowed down with us, content to stay behind us.'

Elliott did not deny those charges, saying, “I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless. I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me, and that’s the way I see it."

In the hours following their Martinsville fracas, Hamlin issued an online apology to Elliott, claiming he never intended to wreck the second-generation driver. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what Hamlin meant to do.

It matters what he did.

In Elliott’s mind, the Martinsville crash was a blatant, intentional act that robbed him of a well-deserved opportunity to race for the 2017 championship. It also provided justification for a blatant, intentional act of his own; an act that robbed Hamlin of his own shot at championship glory.

The incidents in question could not have been more different. Hamlin jacked Elliott’s rear wheels off the ground with a square-on hit from behind, while Elliott door-slammed Hamlin in an instance of side-by-side contact. The end results were identical, however, with each driver losing their respective chance to be NASCAR’s 2017 Monster Energy Series champion.

Tit for tat, an eye for an eye. Everyone loses.

Hamlin paid the price Sunday
In the last two weeks, Hamlin has been roundly criticized for his perceived Martinsville malfeasance, with boos raining down during driver introductions at both Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix. Perhaps NASCAR Nation will react similarly to Elliott’s actions, perhaps not. After all, fans have never been required to be fair or consistent. We judge with our hearts rather than our heads, applying wildly different standards based primarily on who we like.

In the end, Sunday’s latest clash between Hamlin and Elliott offers nothing but a lesson. Under NASCAR’s new playoff format, every race is critical and every lap can be your last. One poor finish can ruin a season’s worth of championship preparation, and the last thing a title contender needs is a fellow competitor who feels – rightly or wrongly -- that he “owes you one.”

If we’ve learned anything in the last three weeks, it’s that the best way to navigate this emotionally charged 10-week playoff marathon is to keep your head down and your mouth shut, racing cleaning and respectfully and giving no one a reason to “settle the score” with a championship on the line.

You can be a tough guy, or you can be a champion.

But you clearly cannot be both.


  1. Charlie9:18 AM

    Not everyone loses, Keselowski will be smiling all the way to Homestead

  2. Anonymous11:08 AM

    There was nothing Chase could do to avoid wrecking with Hamlin's car pushing his into a corner. Hamlin could have avoided wrecking by lifting his left foot as he went up the hill toward the wall, or by pitting after wall contact to change tires. If Chase had raced Hamlin the way Hamlin raced Chase, then he would have pushed Hamlin into a the corner with his back tires half off the ground and zero control over his own fate. As it was, Hamlin's wreck that took him out was all by himself, because he and his team chose not to change tires.

  3. Anonymous11:32 AM

    When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

  4. Simply put, what goes around, comes around.

  5. Anonymous5:41 PM

    Very nice piece you posted on your Facebook page Dave, I agree with you ��% on what you wrote in your article, I wish people would see and read what you have written, it would be a huge eye opener for all the fans of NASCAR, I don't understand some of the comments and what some of the callers say that call your show, if they'd read what you write they would come in alot more educated on what they call they're NASCAR!!!!! Love the piece, I will be reading often!!!! Thank you sir!!!!
    Henry from ohio

  6. Anonymous7:42 PM

    very good article you wrote, You know this is not the first time Denny has mustered up some hate and discontent, remember him wrecking Joey in Calif and the week before that he wrecked him at Bristol, Yes, Denny can drive a car well, but his head will keep him from winning a champinship as it already has, He wrecks too many people.

  7. Anonymous8:23 PM

    Not everyone lost. I enjoyed the heck out of it, even though I was pulling for the 24 team

  8. I think the reason fans booed Hamlin and had such a fit when he wrecked Chase is they viewed as a dastardly thing to do. When Dale Sr. "Rattled Labonte's cage" a lil too hard years ago at Bristol he was vehemently booed from the stands. I had never seen Sr. Look so sheepish during his interview. The mighty Dale had crossed the line. I don't believe fans are entirely fickle when it comes to hard racing and I believe my example proves it. Elliot's actions on Sunday were resoundly cheered I believe because he did it right. Payback...absolutely! Properly executed....magnificent! Dastardly...not even close. Fans can deal with hard racing, but hard racing poorly disguised as an accident. Never. Just my take.

  9. As much as Hamlin has raced at this level I think he would have raced Chase differently in Martinsville. When you get to Phoenix I wonder if Chase could have gotten by Hamlin quicker, then Kenseth may have not caught Chase. I look at that Hamlin actually cost Chase 2 races. How many times did Chase actually bump Hamlin. Hamlin's spotter is just plane wrong. Hamlin was not letting Chase by.

  10. Anonymous8:28 PM

    Good writing Dave, you know this is not the first time Hamlin has had trouble with wrecking someone. True, he can drive a race car, but his head keeps him from winning a title. the one in Daytona with Austin nearly kill so fan in the stands. sad but true