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?
Wow… first off, can’t believe @keselowski took the outside this late in race. Left himself vulnerable.
— Parker Kligerman (@pkligerman) October 29, 2017
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?
Wow I think everyone saw that coming. Surprising they didn’t call him in considering the 2 had checked out and had the win.
— Ryan Ellis (@ryanellisracing) October 29, 2017
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.