Videos from Champions Week in Las Vegas

Here’s a recap of the videos I made from the recent trip to Las Vegas.

Short version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

Long version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

NASCAR tire carrier Paul Swan’s marriage proposal to Monster Energy girl Mariel Lane after the awards ceremony:

Honest opinion on the Denny Hamlin/Chase Elliott incident at Phoenix

My Twitter mentions have been on fire since last night, when I dared mention there wasn’t much difference between what Denny Hamlin did at Martinsville and what Chase Elliott did at Phoenix.

Many of you are absolutely incredulous over this take, questioning my sanity/judgment and openly accusing me of somehow being a Hamlin Fanboi.

I understand why people might think the situations are different: Hamlin appeared to completely wipe out Elliott at Martinsville, while Elliott gave Hamlin a couple warning shots before running him into the Phoenix wall (some of you dispute Elliott even did that, which means we’re just not going to agree on this one).

But here’s where I’m coming from on this:

— In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Hamlin took away Elliott’s chance at Martinsville. It doesn’t matter all that much whether Elliott got moved up the track, got spun or got outright crashed in that situation, because the result was essentially the same — a shot at Homestead was denied. By the way, Elliott has gotten a completely free pass for doing the same thing to Brad Keselowski at Martinsville; his execution may have been better than Hamlin’s because Keselowski didn’t wreck, but the thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Elliott took away Hamlin’s chance at Phoenix. Hamlin didn’t wreck the moment Elliott forced him into the wall, but the contact resulted in a tire rub that was like a time bomb that exploded a few laps later. Some of you argued Hamlin should have just pitted — so it’s somehow his fault — but pitting under green in that situation would have ended Hamlin’s chances just like the wreck did. Either way, once Elliott drove Hamlin into the wall, it was Game Over for Hamlin. Elliott couldn’t have calculated what the end result would be in that situation, but his thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

I truly believe drivers don’t know what’s going to happen after they make contact — whether it’s going to cut someone’s tire or spin them or what. For example: Hamlin wasn’t trying to outright crash Elliott at Martinsville (what would he gain from that?!); he was trying to do the same thing Elliott did moments earlier to Keselowski. But the combination of Elliott getting on the brakes and Hamlin trying to move him at the same time resulted in a spin.

Again, most of you feel differently about that. We’re not going to be able to come to an agreement if so.

But no matter how you view it, I don’t know why people would want to argue Elliott didn’t get his revenge on Sunday. He totally did! Fans clamored for Elliott to do something in retaliation, and he delivered.

“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” Elliott said. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it.”

But now many of you are saying it was different because he didn’t straight up crash Hamlin in the moment, whereas Hamlin did that to Elliott at Martinsville.

Whaaaaat? The outcome was the same!

Hamlin denied Elliott’s chance to make Homestead three weeks ago, and Elliott got his payback when Hamlin was in position at Phoenix.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.

 

5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?

Yeah.

Me too.

Matt DiBenedetto gives his Martinsville take from ‘total race fan’ perspective

Matt DiBenedetto was out of the Martinsville race last week after just 187 laps, so he watched the dramatic finish as a fan, he said Saturday during a media session.

“That was the most exciting race I’ve ever watched,” DiBenedetto said.

But the GoFas Racing driver couldn’t help but wonder what he would have done in a similar situation as Denny Hamlin or Chase Elliott.

DiBenedetto said he didn’t have a problem with what Hamlin did because “it wasn’t intentional” and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was trying to do a big bump-and-run that went bad.

He certainly wouldn’t have apologized in Hamlin’s situation.

“There’s no way in hell I would apologize for that,” DiBenedetto said. “You don’t want to wreck anyone, but that’s the situation you’re forced into. Winning is everything and finishing second doesn’t matter.

“I’d do everything in the world. I’d move my grandmother out of the way on the last lap to have a chance at winning the championship. I’d be like, ‘I hate I wrecked him. I didn’t want to do that. But yeah, I was trying to move him out of the way. We’re racing at Martinsville and I want to go to the championship.'”

On the other hand, even though he said Hamlin didn’t have anything to apologize for, DiBenedetto said he likely would have gotten physical out of pure anger with the situation.

“From Chase’s standpoint…I would be so angry, just out of passion and caring that I would probably lose my mind,” he said. “From an outsider’s perspective, props to him for being so calm, but as a fan, I wanted to see him get out and just be so angry that I don’t care if he shoved him. I was heated just watching it.

“Not that Denny did anything wrong, but if it were me, I probably would have gotten physical in some sort of way — just because I wouldn’t have been able to help it. Your guys work so hard all day every single day for you to have a shot at winning. For it to be taken away, I’d be mad.”

DiBenedetto smiled.

 

“But that’s my take as a total race fan,” he said.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s insane playoff race at Martinsville Speedway…

1. Fair game?

Denny Hamlin is now Public Enemy No. 1 in NASCAR for the rest of this season after wrecking the popular Chase Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville. The fans booed him vociferously after his image appeared on the screen following the race, then cheered loudly when Elliott’s face popped up instead.

Before we go any further, it’s important to remember these incidents are often viewed through a different lens depending on which drivers are involved. If Kyle Busch got wrecked, for example, many fans wouldn’t feel as angry as they do now.

But the very worthy debate in the aftermath (tune in to Sirius/XM this week if you want your fill!) will be whether what Hamlin did was fair game.

Do you think it was? If so, do you feel the same about what Elliott did to Brad Keselowski just moments earlier?

No? Well, here’s the thing. Both drivers were likely attempting to do the same thing. I say “likely” because Hamlin insisted afterward he was not trying to wreck Elliott — he was trying to move him up the track, just like Elliott did to Keselowski — and I’m leaning toward believing him.

Was Hamlin guilty of poor execution? Indeed. But I’d imagine it’s a very fine line when a driver tries to move someone out of the way and ends up turning them instead.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if Hamlin wasn’t telling the truth (I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded that much if Elliott’s spin resulted in Hamlin winning the race and going to Homestead), isn’t that just part of the playoffs?

After all, this is the situation all drivers find themselves in! This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when it created the elimination playoff format.

Winning is everything! Game 7 moments! No more talk about “good points days.”

So aren’t drivers sort of supposed to do whatever they can to win in that situation?

People will say, “Well it doesn’t take any talent to wreck someone for the win.” Very true! And it’s not classy or sportsmanlike or anything like that.

Buuuuut…if wrecking someone for the win gets you to the championship, isn’t it worth it?

That’s up to each driver’s personal code, but they can probably live with the boos and the bad publicity for awhile if they end up with the trophy in the end. Elliott himself almost wrecked Keselowski in the same way Hamlin got him — and would you have blamed Elliott?

Look, NASCAR has changed. This format rewards dirty racing over clean racing. It just does. So whether or not Hamlin meant to outright wreck Elliott or just move him out of the way, would you honestly do it differently if you had the chance?

2. Busch is Back

Remember when Kyle Busch couldn’t win a race in the playoffs? Those pre-2015 days are a distant memory now, because Busch is back in the championship race and a serious threat to win another title.

When Busch is on the ropes, like he was heading into the elimination race of Round 2, and escapes? That’s incredibly dangerous for the rest of the field. You can’t give Busch a second life like that. Now, just a week later, he’s already capitalized by putting himself into the final four.

That’s really bad news for the rest of the field.

3. Second-guessing, Part I

This is professional sports, so unfortunately that comes with some second-guessing. In this case, it’s worth wondering if Keselowski made the wrong move by picking the outside line on what looked like would be the final restart.

Yes, Keselowski made that move work earlier in the race by beating teammate Joey Logano down the backstretch. But did Keselowski out-think himself in this case?

In a moment with everything on the line at Martinsville, Keselowski opened the door for Elliott to run side by side with him — which turned out to be an invitation for a hungry young driver to knock him up the track. If Keselowski had been on the inside, would that have happened?

4. Second-guessing, Part II

Speaking of Team Penske-related second-guesses, driver/PR guy Ryan Ellis brought up a great point on Twitter: Why in the world didn’t Penske have Joey Logano pit with his severe tire rub?

Think about it: With smoke billowing out of the rear tire after contact from Busch, it was only a matter of the time before the tire blew. Everyone at Martinsville and watching on TV could see that.

But at that moment, Keselowski was leading the race and en route to a victory he had called a must-win after Talladega. So why not have Logano pit and change the tire? It’s not like Logano was racing for anything but a win, the chances of which had severely been diminished.

5. How great is Martinsville?

There’s so much more to talk about after this race, and that’s because of Martinsville. God, I love this place so much.

Seriously, this is the best track in NASCAR. It always comes through with some sort of excitement. And it’s not just about the wrecks; the entire race was very compelling with close-quarters racing and drama.

It’s such a crime NASCAR doesn’t have more short tracks. It hurts to think how much different NASCAR would be today if all the 1.5-mile tracks were short tracks and the intermediate track racing was the style we only saw a few times a year.

Maybe those track owners considering converting their boring 1.5-mile tracks into rovals should find a way to build short tracks in their infields instead.

 

Denny Hamlin agrees NASCAR should take wins away

Some drivers, like Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, don’t think NASCAR should take wins away from cars found to be illegal. As NASCAR officials themselves have said for years, Logano said “fans came to the race to watch the race and they should see a winner after the race.”

“I don’t think (the penalty) needs to be more severe,” said Logano, whose encumbered victory at Richmond may cost him a playoff berth if he doesn’t win Saturday night.

But Denny Hamlin, who had both wins in his Darlington sweep encumbered after penalties this week, disagreed.

“We can talk about taking wins away in the future,” Hamlin said Friday. “I think it’s definitely a possibility. As long as it’s the same for everyone. I think that’s key: Make sure when someone else is in there with the same violation, it gets the same penalty and treatment — even if it’s in the playoffs.”

Hamlin said what makes him nervous is whether NASCAR would have the same enforcement during the playoffs — particularly since there are eliminations and even a championship race. Would NASCAR dare change the outcome several days after the fact? That would be a major controversy.

“Obviously, it’s negative publicity for everyone involved, so I just hope that it’s the same (in the playoffs),” Hamlim said. “I’m fine with taking wins away. Nothing wrong with that.”

Hamlin, of course, came up through the short track ranks — where cars frequently get disqualified for running afoul of the rules. So the concept might be more familiar to him, which makes it easier to endorse.

One idea Hamlin said that could further discourage teams from breaking the rules is to lose playoff points they already have.

“I’m all for harsher penalties for parole violators, you know what I mean?” he said. “If you do it on a constant basis, you definitely should be penalized for it.”

The biggest problem Hamlin sees is deciding what warrants a stripped win. Messing with engine, tires, fuel? Obviously. Rear suspension? Probably. But what about aero advantages?

NASCAR would have to make those determinations and make sure it was the same for everyone. That doesn’t mean the rule-breaking will stop, though, because all teams need to work right up to the line without crossing it.

“We fight for every inch because there’s speed there,” Hamlin said. “So it’s a tough game and you’ve got to be willing to take the consequences when you pass over that line that gets drawn in the sand.”

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

What happened: Both of Denny Hamlin’s wins last weekend at Darlington Raceway came while his team was breaking the rules. After further investigation at its R&D Center, NASCAR found Hamlin had two encumbered victories at Darlington — for similar violations in the rear suspension. On the Cup side, Hamlin lost 25 points (meaningless) and the five playoff points he got for the win while crew chief Mike Wheeler received a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine. To make matters worse, the runner-up driver in the Xfinity race — Joey Logano — also had an encumbered finish.

What it means: NASCAR penalties are not tough enough. Encumbered finishes by race winners are becoming more frequent, which means teams must not fear the consequences like they should. Even though he loses the playoff points, Hamlin gets to keep both of his wins despite his team basically cheating. That looks terrible, but this will never change until NASCAR starts to take the win away — which should have been the policy for a long time now. It’s also ridiculous to think Cup drivers not only made the Xfinity race a bore-fest (until the last lap), but they were whooping the Xfinity regulars by driving cheated-up cars the whole time. What a joke!

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It should be a lot higher, but this is sadly becoming more commonplace. For example: Hamlin has two Xfinity wins this year and both were encumbered finishes. After you get beyond the headlines, these penalties are relatively hollow.

Three questions: When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars?