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 Chicago and Sonoma races

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s playoff opener at Chicago and the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma…

1. U-S-A, U-S-A!

In 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win an IndyCar title in six years, there was hope his victory would help lead to a revitalization of open-wheel racing in the United States.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps that was in part because IndyCar doesn’t make enough ripples in the national sports scene to have an impact, but it also may have been because Hunter-Reay wasn’t able to finish in the top five in points since.

So it’s with a note of caution here when we say Josef Newgarden really could be the next great hope for helping to rejuvenate American open-wheel racing — but only if everything falls into place over the next several years.

Even before he signed with Team Penske this season, Newgarden was a tremendously marketable young driver. He’s a 26-year-old from suburban Nashville with tons of charisma, talent and the face of a movie star. Now he’s a champion — thanks to a near-flawless weekend at Sonoma — with plenty of years ahead of him.

It might be a fallacy that a big-time American star would really boost IndyCar to the next level, but that’s often been a debate that doesn’t get a chance to get settled because there hasn’t really been one. This generation of IndyCar has been dominated by South Americans and Europeans, and the top American open-wheel talents have largely ended up getting funneled into the NASCAR pipeline (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, etc.).

Look, Newgarden is going to have to win a lot. He’s going to have to win more titles and an Indy 500 or two. But should Newgarden continue to shine, there’s a chance his visibility could rise on a national scale at the same time IndyCar does. And as the series champion, he’ll have more of a platform now to make an impact with sports fans.

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” said Newgarden, who celebrated with an American flag draped around his shoulders. “We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas, because if it’s just Americans running, it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly, having successful Americans is a big deal, too.”

2. Missed opportunity

This might anger all my new friends in IndyCar (seriously, everyone is so nice here!), but the Sonoma race didn’t do the series any favors in terms of winning over some NASCAR fans.

With the Chicagoland race serving as a lead-in on NBCSN, IndyCar had a golden opportunity to show stock car fans how compelling its brand of racing can be. Instead, Sonoma was a caution-free race with little drama — at least not the kind NASCAR fans are used to.

IndyCar fans probably love that, because they are fiercely proud of their purer brand of racing — no stages, no playoffs, no questionable cautions (even though they do have double points races and push to pass).

But here’s the thing: IndyCar needs to dip into the pool of NASCAR fans — present and former — to provide its best opportunity for growth. A mainstream sports fan is going to be harder for open-wheel racing to hook than a fan who is already predisposed to liking race cars.

I hope IndyCar continues to take steps toward being more and more relevant again in the sports world — and at the same time is able to coexist with NASCAR to have two very healthy forms of motorsport. Though their fans may argue (RIP my mentions this weekend), everyone still shares the common bond of being a race fan — which is becoming a rare breed these days.

3. Truex, again

Even when Martin Truex Jr. and his team screw up, like they did on Sunday, he still finds a way to win by more than seven seconds in a playoff race.

That’s a sobering fact for the competition, which looked like it might have a chance to beat Truex after he sped on pit road and later had to make an extra pit stop for missing lug nuts, which left him in 17th place.

The No. 78 car is so fast that it can overcome seemingly anything, though — at least if it happens early enough in the race — and Truex was back to the lead in plenty of time.

Truex now has 58 playoff points for Rounds 2 and 3, and the only realistic chance of beating him will come when the four contenders battle straight-up for the championship at Homestead.

In the meantime, expect a lot more races like Chicagoland in the coming weeks.

“We really don’t have any tracks I feel like we’re not good at,” Truex said. “It’s just being confident each and every week no matter where we’re going is the difference. We don’t have any big question marks on the schedule anymore.”

4. Keselowski’s great tweet

Brad Keselowski pissed off the Toyota NASCAR contingent this weekend with his tweet, but personally, I loved it.

People have been complaining lately that too many NASCAR storylines revolve around off-track issues. Well, guess what? This drama was about on-track stuff. It was about performance and rules and had everything to do with the playoffs.

That’s great! I mean, it resulted in Kyle Busch tweeting “STFU” with a crying emoji to another driver. Wild! NASCAR needs rivalries like this to add spice to the races.

Honestly, it’s great to see Busch and Keselowski not even pretending to be civil. All the drivers these days seem like they are way too tight, with the group text and drivers council and bike rides and wives/kids hanging out. It’s nice for them to get along, but it’s refreshing for everyone else when there’s some real sourness between two of the top competitors. It makes it more fun to watch.

And by the way, there was nothing wrong with what Keselowski tweeted. Politicking for manufacturer advantages has been a part of NASCAR for a long time, and that’s what he was obviously doing.

5. Burnout talk

OK, let’s have a chat about burnouts for a second. It seems like NASCAR race winners routinely destroy their cars on purpose these days — and not just in the name of celebration.

Today’s burnouts are intentionally designed to cause tire blowouts, which mess up the back of the car and make it harder for NASCAR to run the cars through post-race tech inspection.

A decade ago, drivers did kickass, smoky burnouts without blowing off the rear quarterpanels. But that’s not the case now. It seems like every winner does it, and some drivers (coughDennyHamlincough) have even tapped the wall in the process.

We know this makes a difference because cars can be illegal if they’re off a thousandth of an inch, and destroying part of the car removes that area from scrutiny. Fair or not, the appearance is not good.

NASCAR has indicated it does not want to step in and outlaw burnouts or institute a rule that limits them. After all, fans might complain that NASCAR officials are the fun police and they’re taking yet another enjoyable part away from the sport.

But drivers are smart enough to know how to do a burnout without shredding their tires. So perhaps in the interest of maintaining a level playing field for the playoffs, NASCAR should decide burnouts themselves are OK — but tire blowouts are not.