The inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at Wide World Technology Raceway at Gateway on Sunday (June 5) certainly created some drama. Most notably, between Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin. Chastain got into Hamlin in the second stage of the event and sent the No. 11 Toyota into the wall.
Damage and repairs put Hamlin a few laps down and he was never able to recover. He was, however, still on the track and that allowed him to seek revenge on Chastain for ruining his day. Hamlin slowed down multiple times on the track to try and either wreck Chastain or make it difficult to pass him.
Hamlin had a right to be upset, but did his antics go too far? Vito Pugliese and Anthony Damcott debate whether NASCAR should have parked Hamlin.
Hands Off Hamlin
When the wrecking ball that was Chastain was careening through the field Sunday, one of his first victims was Hamlin.
Hamlin made significant contact with the wall, leaving him with a bent suspension and a ruined afternoon. It was quite the fall from grace having won the remaining crown jewel race on his resume, the Coca-Cola 600, last weekend. Relegated to riding around for the rest of the day, Hamlin waited on Chastain a couple of times, running him down almost into the backstretch grass.
At that point the call came from NASCAR saying, “Okay, that’s enough…”
Hamlin’s response was a laugh and, “Yeah, right…”
On lap 103, Chastain made contact with Elliott, which also involved the No. 23 car of Bubba Wallace, which is owned by Hamlin. On the ensuing restart, Elliott ran Chastain up the track in turn 2, while Hamlin took a swipe at him as well. With the constant harping on safety, and Carson Hocevar suffering still yet undisclosed injuries from the last lap of Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race, should NASCAR have parked one of its top tier drivers (and owners…) in its premier series?
While we are a bit removed from the “Boys, have at it…” era of NASCAR — some of which has been brought about by the new car and perpetual supply chain disruptions that have deleted the term “expendable” from race team’s vocabulary — we haven’t had rivalries that have gotten out of hand lately.
I mean Noah Gragson might get in a fist fight or two, or Jeb Burton threaten to “wreck the dog f***” out of him, or Kevin Harvick might get mad at Chase Elliott for returning a favor while he’s thinking about retiring, but the last time we saw things get out of hand coincidentally, was here in 2010.
Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards were in a tit-for-tat exchange over two seasons that saw Edwards in the fence at Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski roof first into the wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and finally Keselowski getting turned sideways at the finish line, getting broadsided by several cars under the checkers.
What we have seen this year has been the rise of Chastain, a driver who fought tooth and nail to establish himself in the Xfinity Series, and was not afraid to use up his teammates either.
He had another run in with AJ Allmendinger en-route to his first win at COTA in March this year, while on Sunday he had quite a day, clearing out Hamlin and Chase Elliott – and by proxy, BJ McLeod. If NASCAR didn’t send a message to the crew chief and spotter of the No. 1 Team Trackhouse car to have their driver calm down, or heaven forbid, use the penalty box for rough driving, then why should Hamlin be penalized for taking action?
Therein lies the issue; we’re getting close to reaching a point in the sport that I’ve long said was going to happen one day. Lack of enforcement, and the insistence of creating DRAMA and good guys vs bad guys, would lead to a degeneration into Bowman Gray Stadium demolition derby nonsense.
Joey Logano faced similar criticism for over-aggressive driving when he popped William Byron in the bumper coming to the white flag at Darlington Raceway a few weeks back. Logano said, if you don’t get aggressive and move an opponent, you risk losing your career.
Chastain to his credit was up front about what transpired afterwards, recognizing that he owed several drivers an apology, and that it’s up to him to prove it in the weeks to follow. It wasn’t unlike Ernie Irvan addressing the field at Talladega in 1991, following him causing a wreck that resulted in Kyle Petty breaking his leg, and another “big one” at Pocono Raceway a month later that launched Richard Petty over the hood of a car.
Hamlin understands Chastain’s status as well: He was thrust into a similar position when he first assumed to the No. 11 FedEx car in late 2005. A year later he was winning races and finished the season third in points. As an owner, he also understands the predicament of sacrificing inventory because it’s being ran into by a competitor who is, at times, overaggressive. While the heat-of-the-moment comments about “fencing guys hard” is a little over the top and could have been chosen better, his frustration is understandable.
NASCAR on Wednesday said it is “monitoring” the brewing feud between the drivers, and may talk to them prior to Sonoma. I think they, too see what is coming if this isn’t addressed sooner rather than later. We’re off to the best start of a season in about a decade, and it would be derelict of them to ignore this and have a retaliation gone wrong end in tragedy. – Vito Pugliese
Where’s the Line?
Showing displeasure is one thing, but Hamlin showed it again and again and again at Gateway.
I get it.
Chastain is an aggressive driver. VERY aggressive at times. Hamlin has a right to be upset. He got wrecked early on in the race and now he just has to ride around off the pace the rest of the race. But Hamlin intimidated or impeded Chastain on at least three different occasions during the race, something that usually isn’t seen on the racetrack.
While playing mind games with someone who wrecked you is certainly better than wrecking more racecars, Hamlin continually tried to ruin Chastain’s race. I’ve never seen someone so angry over a minor incident — Chastain basically performed an exaggerated bump-and-run, it wasn’t like he junked Hamlin’s car — and have it out for a guy for the rest of the race.
NASCAR told Hamlin that he had made his point known after his first attempt at impeding Chastain, when he drove him all the way down off of the racing surface. That’s like, in baseball, if a pitcher throws dangerously close to (or hits) the batter, they get warned, and if it happens again, they are ejected. NASCAR’s message to the No. 11 team was essentially a warning, so why didn’t NASCAR do anything when he quickly shot back with a laugh, followed by, “Yeah, right”?
The biggest incident that I had an issue with was when Chastain was in a spirited battle with Austin Cindric for position, and Hamlin, who was many laps down at this point, squeezed in between the two cars going into turn 1 and did everything in his power to hold Chastain up. Chastain lost two-and-a-half seconds on Cindric due to that maneuver, because, for a split second, it looked like Hamlin was just going to stop in the middle of the corner.
Additionally, Hamlin attempted to hold Chastain up on a restart, after Elliott also rammed Chastain. At that point, how did NASCAR still refuse to step in? Chastain clearly had enough speed to clear the DVP, but what if Hamlin held him up long enough to where he didn’t? Would NASCAR have parked Chastain because he failed to clear the DVP? How would that have been fair?
To NASCAR’s credit, it has always taken a stance that driver issues should be “self-policing.” The “Boys, Have At It” era was a clear indicator of where NASCAR stands on interfering with driver tensions. However, they have stepped in on occasion and told drivers to stop the nonsense before things get really ugly. Harvick and Elliott had that mediation late last year. Hamlin himself had that talk with NASCAR when he threatened team owner of Go FAS Racing, Archie St. Hilaire, on Twitter that he was going to wreck then-driver Corey LaJoie weekly.
So where’s the line? At any point, Hamlin could have junked Chastain. It was clear he wasn’t happy, so why exacerbate the issue by leaving him out there to literally wait for Chastain every time he passed Hamlin? Lapped cars ruining lead lap cars’ day intentionally is usually frowned upon by NASCAR, regardless of the “self-policing” rule. In the Xfinity Series, Brennan Poole was parked at Iowa in 2015 after returning to the racetrack many laps down and retaliating against JJ Yeley for an earlier incident. And of course, who could forget Matt Kenseth coming on track multiple laps down and sending Joey Logano into the wall at Martinsville Speedway that same year as retaliation for being spun two weeks earlier at Kansas?
This was NASCAR’s chance to solve a problem before it really even got started, and they failed to do that. Hamlin’s actions could have resulted in unnecessary crashes and innocent drivers caught up in messes (like Cindric could have been), and NASCAR had several chances to put a stop to the issue. Hamlin’s one attempt to retaliate came when he forced Chastain all the way off the track. He should’ve been parked for anything that he did to the No. 1 after that. Self-policing does not include repetitive attempts at hindering another driver’s performance. That’s borderline sabotage of someone’s race. How does one not get parked for that?
Remember late 2014 when everyone, including Hamlin, had it out for Keselowski because he was driving too aggressively, much like Chastain? And it devolved into damaged cars after the races and a lot of fighting? If this isn’t addressed quickly, we could very well have a repeat of 2014, and Hamlin will be right in the middle of it again.
– Anthony Damcott