Denny Hamlin scored his 50th NASCAR Cup Series win at Pocono Raceway on Sunday (July 23), and he was greeted by a showering of boos at the start/finish line.
Why? The controversial decision to end the race under caution was perhaps one of the reasons, but it also had to do with moving up the track and putting Kyle Larson in the turn 1 wall while battling for the top spot with seven laps to go.
Hamlin was adamant in his victory lane interview that he did not touch the No. 5 car, but just about every replay has proved otherwise.
The Pocono finish marked yet another instance of a driver moving up from their line and forcing the car on the outside to either lift or hit the fence; this time, the move has drawn criticism from people in the NASCAR industry.
While there isn’t a proper name for this type of move at the moment, it’s drawn the ire of fellow drivers, and in extreme circumstances, retaliation.
In 2023 alone, we’ve had Ryan Preece extract payback on Larson after he put Preece in the wall out of turn 4 in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Then, we had Noah Gragson confront and get punched by Ross Chastain post-race for pulling the move in turn 4 at Kansas Speedway. In the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott right-reared Hamlin on the straightaway after he was walled out of turn 4. And now, this.
That’s not even including incidents from last year or races this year that didn’t feature immediate retaliation. At Phoenix Raceway in March, Hamlin intentionally walled Chastain on the final restart to even a score from the year prior. At Darlington Raceway in May, Chastain and Larson walled each other on consecutive restarts until Chastain drifted up and knocked both of them out of contention.
Last year, Joey Logano bumped William Byron into the fence at Darlington for squeezing him into the wall on the final restart. Hamlin drifted up and put Chastain in the wall at Pocono last year as payback for incidents at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Bubba Wallace right-reared Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for moving him into the fence. At Texas Motor Speedway in September, Hamlin pulled the move on Byron, and Byron responded by spinning him out under caution.
Perhaps it’s recency bias talking, but I can’t remember a time in the Gen 6 era when this move was as commonplace as it is with the Next Gen car.
And with that, the question still stands: Why has this move proliferated since the car switch in 2022?
A constant between the Gen 6 and Next Gen – and really any car in the last 30 years – is dirty air.
As Landon Cassill explains, if a driver is unable to complete a pass on the inside in a timely manner, they drift backward in a hurry. And at tracks where it’s hard to pass the leader like Pocono, forcing the issue or ceding the position is often the difference between winning and losing.
Drivers are looking – often in desperation – to complete passes, and both a benefit and drawback of the Next Gen car is that it’s built like a tank.
With the Gen 6 car, contact while running side-by-side had a huge risk of cutting down a tire for either party. And for the car that got put in the fence, the resulting damage was a race-ender more often than not.
The Next Gen car allows the car to absorb more hits in these types of situations, but the car isn’t 100% invincible to this type of contact. Preece’s car was crippled after being stuffed into the wall at Bristol dirt, and Larson’s car was a parachute on the final restart at Pocono after the contact with Hamlin and the wall.
Whether or not the car gets damaged, however, the victims of these moves have almost always retaliated – sometimes in ways that cross a line. NASCAR is a self-policing sport, but a driver should never right-rear someone on the straightaway of a high-speed track.
Racing with respect has been a hot topic in recent years for NASCAR. And if the retaliations have been any indication, running someone into the fence is perhaps one of the most disrespectful things a driver can do.
About the author
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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