Thirteen years ago the line was uttered by NASCAR brass in response to accusations that the sport had become sterile and that they were policing on-track disputes too heavy-handedly.
During the NASCAR Media Tour, Robin Pemberton spoke to the assembled pundits and explained that the sanctioning body was going to let the drivers police themselves and, provided it didn’t become dangerous, the folks in Daytona would keep their hands out of it.
While the policy has seemed to back off some in recent years, there is still a belief that drivers can take care of incidents without NASCAR stepping in. Unfortunately for Denny Hamlin, if you make a public statement about what you tried to do to a fellow competitor, NASCAR will hit you in the pocketbook.
As the sport gets ready to head back to North Wilkesboro Speedway we are reminded of the famous rivalry between Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine. There was a period where those two drivers could not get near each other on the track without intentionally wrecking the other.
The rivalry was immortalized in the movie “Days of Thunder.” The famous meeting that took place, in Daytona, with Big Bill France and the two drivers was the basis for the scenes in the movie where Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns tear up their rental cars en route to dinner. That was a situation where Daytona tried to let the boys have at it and there was just no end in sight.
Earnhardt had rivalries like that with a few drivers. Remember the “Pass in the Grass,” although it wasn’t really a pass? Earnhardt and Bill Elliott were after each other for quite some time and, while they didn’t do too much wrecking, they certainly didn’t cut each other any slack. Earnhardt also had a feud with Darrell Waltrip. It culminated in the famous wreck at Richmond Raceway. The drivers were able to settle their differences on the track without NASCAR stepping in.
More recently we have seen Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer working out their differences. From Indianapolis to Bristol, they rattled each other’s cages but they were able to work through their differences without NASCAR having to bring down fines or penalties. That doesn’t mean that the drivers didn’t get a lecture from the big trailer after an incident or two.
Hamlin has ruffled a few feathers in his career but he generally does it within the confines of the old school “unwritten rules.” Racing at the front of the pack, among drivers who routinely win or at least contend for wins, is different than it is in the back of the pack.
As drivers get better during their career and they spend more time near the front, they will be schooled in the etiquette of racing for wins. The front of the pack drivers are as aggressive or more than the drivers in the back, but they choose their time to force the issue on-track. Ten laps into a race you will see lead-lap cars give up positions to a car that is clearly superior.
With 10 laps to go, that same courtesy will generally not happen. If people do something unacceptable, they know that, at the right time, they will most likely receive a payback. That is the “Boys have at it” mentality. However, when the payback is delivered, it is not broadcast or bragged about. Voicing intent or boasting about retaliation leaves NASCAR in a position where they must do something.
The bottom line is that the drivers in the garage know what is acceptable and what is over the line. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, a driver will step over the line. When they do, they are well aware that payback will come. When that happens they accept it and move on and the driver who delivers it simply grins and heads to the next race.
Hamlin and Ross Chastain have a tremendous rivalry developing and it could be magnificent for the sport. The important factor is that, when they choose to retaliate or send a message, they need to keep their mouths shut and let their actions do all of the talking.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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