Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Back-Breaking Maneuvers, The Perfect Combination And A Secret Success

Did You Notice?… The fine line Joey Logano walks now? The 22-year-old was hardly apologetic after breaking Denny Hamlin’s back, literally, with a last-lap incident that, regardless of intention, he felt evened the score.

So much of Logano’s response has been reported; we won’t go into detail on that in this space. But the result of this incident, after Hamlin’s compression fracture diagnosis, is a sobering reminder of the worst case scenario for “Boys, Have At It.” That’s not to say athletes despising each other is a bad thing; hatred, when expressed through aggression on the field, has built the backbone of contests like the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers – Baltimore Ravens rivalry. That passion, borne out of contempt for the opponent, always leaves those games as two of football’s best each year.

But what makes the difference in racing, leaving Logano in a scary “no man’s land” is the “lower level” options through which other athletes can retaliate, without concern. Yes, a punch to the face can hurt anyone, at anytime, in any sport. When two hockey players throw off the gloves and start going at it, a trip to the hospital can surely result.

Joey Logano embroiled himself in controversy at Auto Club Speedway after a blocking incident and a last-lap crash in which Denny Hamlin was sent to the hospital for a broken back.

But there are also plenty of mitigating factors. Teammates, along with referees, surround the pair, and can immediately break things up should they get out of hand. A fist, as opposed to, say, a gun, can only do so much damage to the human body. How often have you heard of one punch actually killing someone? It’s not ideal, but if two guys want to get even with each other, a little scrapping now and then isn’t life or death. There’s a reason boxing is a legal sport, after all… if opponents were falling down dead, after every blow I don’t think it’d be a Friday night feature on HBO.

Those types of safeguards aren’t in place when it comes to crashing a car, though. Any contact with the outside wall, at any time, is subject to forces of nature beyond anyone’s control. Simple physics can turn one hit into ten “punches,” or twenty, or serious injury or even death. Yes, tragedy hasn’t struck since that fateful day at Daytona in 2001, but as Hamlin and Michael Annett have recently reminded us, racing will never be 100% completely safe. A “punch back,” in this case by Logano, if done in a race car, could lead to his rival permanently sidelined or killed.

So why is fighting it out outside the car frowned on by comparison? It’s because that public image of two drivers playing fisticuffs goes against NASCAR’s “family” mentality. That’s why the powers that be promote “Boys, Have At It;” the image of cars wrecking, considered “part of the sport,” is far better for parents than seeing their kids’ role models teaching them how to knock somebody out. A 5-year-old won’t copycat wrecking their parents’ car on the highway; they will, however take to heart a driver who responds to every “crisis” incident with a punch to the head.

So, we’re left with scenes like Sunday, moments of excitement we all get wrapped up in. I’ll admit, like many others who either cover this sport, watch it or participate in it, the heart was jumping during every bit of those last 15 minutes. It’s hard to call yourself a race fan if it wasn’t. I hope that, for Logano’s sake, that Turn 3-4 incident, where the cars are going so much faster than at almost any other track (California’s pole-winning speed was 187+ MPH), was simply a natural case of him losing control. Because, for better or for worse, someone’s life was on the line with that wreck, and some serious, long-term consequences for everyone in the midst of it was far too close for comfort. Could you imagine the storyline this morning if Hamlin was paralyzed? With Logano’s postrace comments, like “Now we’re even” or “That’s what he gets,” it would open the door to him potentially getting sued for liability or even, in an extreme instance, charged with a criminal act.

I’d hate to see “Boys, Have At It” completely end because its core purpose, creating those kinds of rivalries and fantastic finishes, is wonderful for the sport. But there also is an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” of sorts; drivers know when to and when not to cross the line. If too many drivers fail to understand that, the privilege will be lost just like racing back to the caution years ago. One bad egg could ruin it for everyone.

So, if Logano needs to learn from this incident – and I think he does – I surely hope those around him make sure it happens. With so many drivers speaking up on the incident, along with the long-term injury for Hamlin, there’s too much at risk here not to be concerned.

Did You Notice?… The key to quality racing on intermediates? Yes, NASCAR’s Gen-6 played a part in a Fontana finale that defied all expectations. It’s clear the more drivers are getting comfortable, the better they feel about a car that has enough grip to give them extended ability to run side by side.

But the real gold medal of the weekend, rivalries and blocking and scuffles aside, should go to Goodyear. For once, the tire company brought a compound that had just the right amount of wear for different strategies. Part of that is the age of the pavement; even a “rock hard” tire would wear on Fontana’s older asphalt. But you have to give credit where credit is due. Two years ago, that race would have been won going away by Kyle Busch on the restart. He had the fastest car; new tires wouldn’t have made one bit of difference for the pack as aero push would have kept any potential rivals seconds behind. Denny Hamlin would be healthy, after finishing about 20th, and Joey Logano would be wondering why the heck his team chose to pit.

Instead, we wound up with a finish that reminds longtime fans of the quality intermediate races of old. Now that’s a product you can go out and sell to the general public, right? Whatever formula Goodyear found out, let’s hope they bring it to other tracks. And whenever another oval hears a question about repaving, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was suggesting about Fontana’s backstretch? The company line should be as simple as three words: “DO. NOT. TOUCH.”

Did You Notice?… What’s made the difference for Kurt Busch? The last two weeks, it’s been rediscovering an ability to fight back. Last season, with Phoenix Racing whenever something awful would happen – be it a minor wreck, speeding penalty, whatever – Busch’s response, besides the yelling, would be to turn overaggressive. He’d try too hard to make up time, spinning out in the process or blowing out equipment for a team living its life on the mechanical edge.

Kurt Busch is sitting pretty at Furniture Row Racing—is he on the way to a win with the single-car effort?

Now? Busch still yells, but he believes in crew chief Todd Berrier and has just enough patience to wait for the race to come to him. That’s exactly what happened Sunday; after fighting, for multiple cautions, to be the Lucky Dog, Busch snatched it up in the last 100 miles and responded accordingly. When the opportunity presented itself, the equipment was there – not used up – and the No. 78’s march to the front rivaled that of his younger brother these past few weeks. Busch has also learned to be better in front of the mic, thanking his team after the race and saying nice things, publicly and prominently even if he doesn’t mean them.

What a far cry from last year, where that Chevy would have been in pieces long before that chance would come. So stay tuned; Martinsville’s next, a place this team was in contention to pull an upset last Fall until Busch got caught up in a series of late-race incidents. It’s rapidly looking like “if” they’re going to win a race has changed to “when.”

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

– Who would have thought, two years ago we’d be five races into 2013 and Paul Menard would still be driving for Richard Childress, let alone the most consistent wheelman on the team? While he’s only won once, at Indianapolis in 2011, the “rich man’s son” has proven, at this point, that he belongs in this sport, driving that No. 27. But at the same time, with 12 top-10 finishes over the last year-plus compared to just one top-5 result, you have to wonder if he’s one of those “straight B” students that’s just never gonna go higher. That’s why Menard’s not considered a serious contender for the Chase; this team has to figure out how to turn those eighth-place runs they always get on intermediates into fifths, fourths, thirds, and the occasional win. Still, the longer he stays up there, fighting for the top 10, the pressure builds on owner Childress to shift focus from the No. 29, in essence a “lame duck” operation with Kevin Harvick, over to the team that’s consistently outperforming them.

– The number of races without a top-10 finish for Juan Pablo Montoya is now 26. You’d have to think, had that happened in any other situation, the driver would lose his job no matter how many open-wheel races they’ve won. I’m beginning to think Chip Ganassi made a mistake by not sucking it up and copycatting rival Roger Penske. A few years in Nationwide have done wonders for Sam Hornish, Jr.; now, he looks primed and ready to be successful in Sprint Cup next season. Montoya, despite making the Chase in the past, has looked even worse than Hornish’s first Cup stint as of late. Sometimes, a demotion really is the next best thing—the problem would be getting the proud Colombian to accept it. But at some point, doesn’t he lose the right to have an opinion on the matter?

– Could the last, best chance for Elliott Sadler lie dead ahead? Already reported to be driving a fourth Cup Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing on a limited schedule, you’d have to think he’s the No. 1 choice to sub for Denny Hamlin while he spends at least six weeks healing. Nationwide JGR teammate Brian Vickers is already committed to the No. 55 for Martinsville; other options, like Michael McDowell, don’t offer the same wealth of experience and success. Sadler’s the easy pick, a quick plug ‘n’ play for as long as Hamlin needs to sit out.

It’s also an amazing chance to audition. Sadler’s seen what limited success on the Cup side has done for Vickers’ career; the right runs, in the right places, could lead to Gibbs finally finding a way to expand come 2014.

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