Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Was The ‘Fail Melon’ Justified or Worthy of a Penalty?

While the first 300 laps at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (March 12) were not exactly edge of your seat viewing, the final few were pivotal and ultimately caused some waves only four races into the regular season. Last year two drivers always seemed to find each other on the racetrack — and this weekend they just so happened to find themselves in close quarters again.

While it appeared to be nothing of substance, Denny Hamlin’s confirmation of intent on his Actions Detrimental with Denny Hamlin podcast became detrimental to his season after being issued a 25-point fine and $50,000 by NASCAR on Wednesday. With this recent installment of Denny & Ross, was Hamlin justified in his brazen intent to wreck Ross Chastain, or did his blunt honesty force NASCAR to take action? This week in 2-Headed Monster, Vito Pugliese and Stephen Stumpf dig into the incident.

Pulling the Chain on Chastain

If there’s one prevailing trend among young drivers on social media these days, it is to shamelessly record yourself breaking the law, then essentially bragging about it, cementing your legacy in perpetuity by preserving it in a digital format for all to see. In Denny Hamlin’s case, his urge to drive downloads of his podcast Actions Detrimental with Denny Hamlin had him airing a taped confession to what was at best a civil infraction — but now is a felony with a loss of 25 points and $50,000 for intentionally plowing into his arch nemesis Chastain.

To quote comedian Chris Rock, “I’m not saying it’s right … but I understand.”

Last season was Chastain’s coming out party, winning two races for a newly formed team, making it to the Championship 4 in the playoffs and creating one of the most iconic moments in motorsports history with the “Hail Melon” move at Martinsville Speedway. Along the way, he also became a magnet for controversy, particularly with the consistent contact he seemed to make with the No. 11 of Hamlin. While Hamlin did make a point with Chastain at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway last summer, it wasn’t exactly Carl Edwards sending Brad Keselowski skyward or Jeff Gordon turning right in the middle of the fourth turn at Phoenix Raceway, pinning Clint Bowyer against the wall.

See also
Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Denny Hamlin Hit with Penalties Following Phoenix

If anything, the inaction seemed kind of lame, and Chastain continued his melon may care attitude at multiple times with drivers other than Hamlin.

On the final lap this weekend, Hamlin appeared to be in a bad position with both tires and track position and saw the No. 1 Chevrolet as a target of opportunity. So he tried to make eight tires work better than four — the “Fail Melon,” if you will. Ryan Newman did this once to Kyle Larson and he got into the Championship 4 in the process, so why not give it a shot three races into the season?

I’m not sure why Hamlin didn’t take more aggressive and decisive action last year. Perhaps his foray into ownership with a new team may have brought unwanted scrutiny from sponsors, the manufacturer and the team he actually drives for, Joe Gibbs Racing. Keep in mind, last year he was trying to secure Tyler Reddick to a second car and expand the 23XI operation. Does that mean he can go back and settle some old scores?

Unlikely. Hamlin hasn’t historically been that kind of driver. The only other time things went this far was with Keselowski, and his retaliation was ultimately a half-hearted spin, 200 yards behind the field at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race of the season — in an Xfinity Series event of all things. When he got into it with Joey Logano a decade ago at Auto Club Speedway, he ended up with a broken back.

Hamlin is not a man motivated by malevolence. He’s actually a pretty nice guy.

That said, after the repeated issues last year, Hamlin does have a couple in the bag he could pull out this season. If he was out to settle some scores, he should have done it last year, but then again that’s not for me to decide. Chastain used up Hamlin and a number of other drivers last year, and nobody seemed too motivated to address it.

Was it just hard racing? Sure. But if it goes unchecked, it will likely continue to escalate and rear its head at a critical juncture during the season. Unfortunately, his podcast platform got the better of him, and as our own Steve Waid noted, coming down on Hamlin may have some unintended consequences of its own.

Do I have an issue with what Denny did at Phoenix? Not really. While vengeance best served cold may be the modus operandi for some competitors, the Ides of March this was not. I think his goal was to set the tone for the season and let him know this year would be different. Getting salt poured into the wound of missing the playoffs by one of the most kickass moves ever caught on film, to be replayed at every juncture during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season, is not something that would be suffered a second year in a row.

Hamlin did however break the two rules that Jimmy Conway told a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” – Vito Pugliese

See also
Dropping the Hammer: A Ross Chastain-Denny Hamlin Truce? Say It Ain't So

Hamlin’s Honesty was the Real Detrimental Action

The first impression for TV viewers of the Denny Hamlin-Ross Chastain incident with two laps to go at Phoenix this past Sunday was that it looked like a typical late restart racing incident. Drivers were going three- and four-wide into the corners, and it appeared that Hamlin wasn’t able to quite make the turn; collecting Chastain appeared to be a humorous coincidence.

That’s all that might’ve been if Hamlin hadn’t said anything on podcasts or Twitter in the days following the race. Intentionally wrecking a driver is nothing new, but NASCAR has been adamant about penalizing drivers for saying the quiet part out loud after the fact. That’s precisely what the sanctioning body did when William Byron admitted to intentionally spinning Hamlin under caution at Texas Motor Speedway last September.

Once recent argument in Hamlin’s favor is that Austin Dillon admitted to punting Bubba Wallace late in the Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in February, but no penalty was ever handed out. Given that the Clash was a non-points exhibition race, that may have been the difference here.

But Hamlin didn’t do himself any favors on Twitter after admitting to it on his podcast either.

In a way, Hamlin forced NASCAR’s hand with this comment. He essentially said, “yes, I did this on purpose, but I probably won’t get penalized because it didn’t cause a wreck.”

NASCAR had two options in this case: 

1) Not penalize Hamlin, but open up a loophole to where drivers could intentionally interfere with someone without causing a crash

2) Penalize Hamlin, despite the fact that Chastain never spun or wrecked, and still finished on the lead lap.

NASCAR chose the latter.

Hamlin going on record with his comments online is also perplexing in that both he and Chastain had agreed to a truce after a post-race discussion. If that was the case, why bring up putting him in the wall the day after? The incident flew under the radar until he made those podcast comments, and now the fans and media alike are talking about the latest saga of Hamlin vs. Chastain despite the feud supposedly reaching a ceasefire. And now that Hamlin has been penalized for “evening” the score, it may, in fact, not be over.

Of course, whether Hamlin was justified in his actions is an entirely different debate. If he felt that putting Chastain in the wall would settle the score, then he doesn’t need to answer or explain himself to anyone else. If Hamlin had simply made the comments off the record about what really happened, and it appeared in print somewhere, this could’ve been a nod and a wink story that either Hamlin or Chastain could bring up at a later date.

Instead, Phoenix might be the latest case of boiled tempers that have the potential to carry over into a future race. – Stephen Stumpf

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Matty

I had stopped being a Hamlin supporter when he jacked up Chase Elliott at Martinsville, thus denying Chase his first-ever win. So for me, anytime the #1 messes with the #11, it’s all fine by me.

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