With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heading back to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, references to what took place during last fall’s visit to the paperclip-shaped half-mile are inevitable.
Chase Elliott was leading and on the verge of his first career win when he took a shot to his rear bumper from Denny Hamlin. Elliott ended up in the wall in what has become an all-too-familiar scene not only in NASCAR, but in many other forms of motorsports as well.
Now, I understand that racing for the win lends itself to close quarters and often results in contact. One former Camping World Truck Series champion and Cup veteran once stated he would wreck his grandma in order to win his first Cup race. He never got that opportunity, but it seems his willingness to boot granny out of the way has manifested itself to the new generation of drivers.
The problem is that many drivers have taken to using the chrome horn first and trying to pass as a secondary option.
For example, last September, the Camping World Truck Series drivers were racing at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Kaz Grala was out front late and appeared to have his second career win in hand. But on the final lap, Austin Cindric got close enough to get to Grala’s bumper.
Cindric used the moment to punt Grala and send his truck spinning backward. Cindric made no attempt to pass cleanly. He didn’t appear interested in trying either. It isn’t like they were in the final corner. There was time to set up a pass, and Cindric certainly had the faster truck in the closing laps.
Grala was relatively calm in his post-race interview. His tone gave a sense that he may have actually expected what would happen if Cindric got close enough. It’s as though even the drivers who don’t employ such behavior still understand that most of their peers do. Which I find to be borderline tragic.
It’s true that the pressure to win is at an all-time high.
The playoff format that NASCAR has implemented in its top three levels rewards winning like never before. We hear it constantly: win and you’re in. Sponsors pay a lot of money and the ultimate way to reward them is through performance. So some of the blame for this rampant cage-rattling has to fall on NASCAR for dangling that carrot out there.
Thatʻs not to mention the whole “boys, have at it” thing. Don’t fool yourself: NASCAR isn’t going to step in. The media coverage of such run-ins draws a lot of interest. Networks recycle the footage of incidents in promos and analysis programs. Ultimately, it’s up to the drivers to police themselves in this area.
But rather than retaliating for past transgressions, competitors prefer to offer up a preemptive strike. They rationalize it with the notion that if the roles were reversed, they would be victimized in a similar fashion.
It should be noted that drivers have been wrecking each other for wins since the early days of NASCAR. Many longtime fans of the sport can name multiple races that involved one driver booting another while battling for a trophy. It just seems that recently drivers have become too quick to use the bumper rather than make an effort to pass their opponents utilizing driving skill.
But it can be done and is often more exciting for the fans than merely watching someone get dumped.
This past February, at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season-opener at New Smyrna Speedway, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland battled it out for the win. They leaned on each other but neither took any cheap shots. They swapped the lead back and forth in the closing laps and when the checkered flag waved, both were still facing the right direction. Even though Gilliland won, he didn’t ruin Burton’s race to do so.
Between these two finishes, it’s hard to debate which one is the more thrilling to watch. Any driver can plow into the bumper of the car in front of them. That merely involves ignoring one’s brake pedal. It is definitely not a driving skill. When drivers can wheel their cars around the corners door to door without dumping each other, it is far more impressive. I’m not saying that no one should ever get spun out of the lead. That simply isn’t a realistic expectation. I’d just like to see racers put on a good show battling for the win. Fenders crunching, tires smoking, and sheet metal banging together as the head for the finish line.
That certainly sounds more entertaining than one car crossing the line solo while the other sits crumpled against the fence. – Frank Velat
The Wrecker Gets the Checkered
Intentionally wrecking somebody else is wrong and should not be done … unless you’re going for the win.
In NASCAR, there is a rule that states a driver must give 100 percent effort in a race. It is a rarely enforced rule, as seen this past fall when Kyle Larson was allowed to show no effort to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway because he wasn’t in the championship battle. But it is still a rule.
Giving 100 percent means that you must do whatever it takes to win. If you’re in second or third place and you don’t feel confident that you have enough to get around the leader, then you better dive into that next corner with the sole intention of plowing that lead car out of the way. If you mess around trying to set up a clean pass and don’t get the win, then you have not given 100 percent.
More importantly, if you’re a clean driver that finishes second, then you let your team down.
Every car owner, sponsor and crew member pours so much into each race weekend. They certainly do everything they can to win the race. The driver is the team’s weakest link if he or she doesn’t.
This is not the way that the racing culture has always been, but as Frank mentioned, NASCAR’s “win and you’re in” model has made it that way. In the old NASCAR, a driver could take solace in a runner-up finish because it was a positive points day, but now finishing second means next to nothing. Today’s NASCAR is by definition Talladega Nights’ character Ricky Bobby’s quote, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
Gone are the days of Alan Kulwicki or Matt Kenseth nickel and diming their way to a championship. If you want a championship today, you have to win races. If you don’t have Martin Truex Jr.-type speed, then you might have to get your hands dirty to win said races.
This type of racing doesn’t apply to any kid or local racer reading this. Most of the weekly racing series at the local short tracks still go off of a season-long points battle. Plus, those divisions mainly consist of family-run teams racing for the prize money. Finishing second in local racing is worth the solid points day and a decent paycheck.
It’s cruel to mess up someone else’s payday and you could mess up your own in the process. Also, you don’t want to wreck someone who may be racing in their only car, and you definitely don’t want them retaliating on your only car.
In today’s NASCAR, if someone is in a position to win a race, then their team has plenty of money to get a replacement car. Prize money doesn’t mean much now, so dumping them and changing their finish from first to 20th doesn’t hurt their purse that much.
NASCAR teams run on sponsor money now, and it is much more beneficial for your sponsor if you wreck someone or get wrecked by someone. If Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin had calmly finished 1-2 at Martinsville last fall, then their sponsors, NAPA and FedEx, wouldn’t have gotten a lot of airtime. They would have been quite visible on TV for the closing laps, but the end of that race would rarely be seen or brought up again.
Because Hamlin dumped Elliott and they had the dust-up after the race, clips from that race have been played over and over again, whether it be for promotions or news stories. And every time those clips are shown, NAPA and FedEx are displayed prominently. It is certainly a way to make a sponsor happy. Heck, let’s give the sponsors one more instance of free press.
Hamlin’s only mistake in that race was that he didn’t hang on for the win. If you don’t win the race, then people remember you as a dirty driver. If you win, then down the road people will respect you for it. Dale Earnhardt knocked countless people out of the way for wins, and he is revered now. He wasn’t respected when he wrecked Darrell Waltrip at Richmond in 1986 and Kyle Petty ended up winning.
Speaking of Waltrip, he once wrecked not one, but two people to win at Martinsville. His move to turn Terry Labonte into Earnhardt is now considered a classic moment in racing history.
How can you watch that clip and not have a big smile on your face? No one would’ve remembered the race had Waltrip settled for third, and he wasn’t hated for the move because he won. In fact, Waltrip won the Most Popular Driver Award just two years after that.
Wrecking someone for the win is a part of racing now, and I’d bet that even those that say they are vehemently against it enjoy it just a little bit deep down inside. -Michael Massie
About the author
Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.