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.
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.