Race Weekend Central

Around The Block: Stewart Called This One Wrong

You saw it with your own eyes on Sunday: the block, the brawl, the bad blood, and the bleeped-out tirade afterward. Now, a few days later, the dust has settled after a wild finish at Fontana—Fontana!—and the heart of the matter becomes clear: it began, on Sunday, with a block.

Really, what went down in California was a perfect storm of two separate incidents at the center of which was one Joey Logano. Logano threw the block in question, and then went on to race Denny Hamlin as hard as two drivers can race for the win-an incident which ended with Hamlin in the hospital with a broken back.

For sure, Logano has taken a lot of heat for the incident with Hamlin in particular, and at least some of that’s for good reason-an apology would certainly go a long way toward repairing the PR problem Logano created for himself. (And a note to Logano: saying you wish you hadn’t said anything is not an apology. In order to be an apology, you need to actually say the words, “I’m sorry.”) And he should be sorry—not for Hamlin’s wreck because that was a racing deal in the end, but for his words afterwards, “That’s what he gets,” especially once Logano knew the extent of Hamlin’s injury. Really, after a minor spin courtesy Hamlin at Bristol, Logano still thinks a broken back is “what he gets” in return?

Tony Stewart took exception with Joey Logano’s block last week but seemed to forget what happened the last time he tried that move.

But that incident aside, Logano was also at the center of racing’s equivalent of a bench-clearing brawl when Tony Stewart confronted him about a block he threw on a restart, which forced Stewart to back out of the throttle and cost him a top ten, even a top 20 finish. Stewart needed a good finish at Fontana after leading a couple of times, because his start to the season has been abysmal. Stewart, a three-time champion, is 22nd in points five races into 2013. Of course he’s frustrated; he’s looking at the back bumper of a lot of drivers on the points chart, including a rookie (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) and two drivers for underfunded, single-car teams (Kurt Busch and Casey Mears). So it’s fair to say that Stewart is feeling the heat, and he transferred some of the heat to Logano.

Except, in this case, Logano did absolutely nothing wrong.

Was his block as well-timed as it could have been? Was it perfectly executed? No. (In fact, Logano tried the one thing you can’t do and tried to toss in a second block, which almost never ends well. But he didn’t wreck anyone, so no harm, no foul.) But the bottom line is that Logano had the position and he defended it. That’s his right as a race car driver in NASCAR. In fact, it’s his responsibility-he’s getting paid to bring home the best finish possible for his team. It’s not his job to make sure someone else, especially someone who is not his teammate, gets a good points finish.

Sorry, Tony, you were the one out of line.

Stewart, especially, should be careful of what he says to others about blocking, and even more so about starting a brawl with another team over one. Imagine if all the teams whose cars were mashed up in the multi-car crash that Stewart triggered at Talladega last fall had swarmed Stewart and his crew the way Stewart and members of both his team and Danica Patrick’s did Logano this week? There would have been about 20 teams on the attack!

So really, Stewart is quite the hypocrite in this—he’s not only thrown some blocks of his own, but the last one was so ill-timed it didn’t just cause a couple of guys to have to back out; it wrecked more than a dozen cars and left one driver out with a concussion, destroying his title bid. Bottom line? Stewart should have kept his mouth shut and his crew to himself in Fontana.

In general, blocking is a tricky thing. It’s certainly not against the rules. It’s not even a particularly dirty move…if it’s done right. And doing it right is key. Basically, to execute a block correctly, a driver must have both impeccable timing and a modicum of common sense. You only get one chance to block. If you can’t get it done, it’s extremely unlikely that you can take a second stab at it without causing a wreck. We’ve seen it before—a driver blocks once only to press his luck and wreck himself or another driver (or several) in the process. Not only doesn’t a driver have a second chance to block, if he doesn’t time it right the first time it will either be too late to try it or if he tries it anyway, it will trigger the same result as a second block—cars in the wall.

Is it possible to throw a dirty block? Absolutely. Once a car has its nose at the rear quarter panel or tire, that driver has position. An attempt to block at that point will cause a wreck, and it carries a high risk of the blocker taking himself out. Blocking when a driver knows it will cause a crash behind him isn’t particularly cool, either. Nor is blocking a car below the yellow line on a restrictor plate track if there’s room to race above it. So, yes, a block isn’t always an innocent defense of position; it can certainly be less than clean. Dirty moves aren’t necessary, and they don’t earn a driver much respect in the long run.

But is it up to NASCAR to police blocking? No. INDYCAR has a no blocking rule, and it’s almost a joke. A driver “cannot alter his or her racing line based on the actions of pursuing drivers to inhibit or prevent passing“—he has to give his opponent the other lane to attempt a pass. If the driver in front changes his lane and INDYCAR officials deem it a block, he can be penalized with a minimum of a drive-through.

That’s not really the answer for NASCAR; a bad block in IndyCar has more potential for tragic consequences. Yes, that can also happen in NASCAR, as we were reminded on Sunday, but stock cars are built to withstand and dish out some contact—Indy cars are not. So while the rule is understandable from a safety standpoint (and to be fair, INDYCAR has backed down to a degree on what they deem a block). For the most part, in NASCAR, there’s no need to create a rule, especially one which involves a huge judgment call, because it just invites inconsistency and cries of favoritism. Blocking falls under “boys, have at it,” as it should.

And in the end, blocking is part of what makes stock car racing exciting to fans. It adds an element of drama in races. As long as it’s clean, or at least without nefarious intent (and even Stewart’s bonehead attempt at Talladega wasn’t dirty, just incredibly badly timed), it’s fine. Dirty blocking is just like any other dirty driving, and either way, if drivers race each other the way they are raced, it will work itself out. And a driver, like Stewart, who is known for blocking and blocking hard, should expect to have that kind of racing thrown back at him. And when it is, he shouldn’t be surprised, and he shouldn’t be accosting other drivers after a race when his most recent attempt at doing the same thing caused a whole lot more damage. And while Joey Logano did some things wrong at Fontana, defending his position late in the race wasn’t one of them.

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