Denny Hamlin had quite a weekend in Florida. He won his fourth race of the year, spun a guy out, and declared himself the next threat to Jimmie Johnson’s “Drive for Five” championship quest. But while Johnson’s fourth consecutive Sprint Cup is the talk of the NASCAR world this week – either because of its historical significance or by simply convincing skeptics through constant repetition of the same message – the real race of the weekend was held the day before, in the Nationwide Series Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. NASCAR’s second-tier division served up a beauty of a nightcap, and did so amid a backdrop of racing that recalled a simpler time and an on-track incident that, while eyebrow-raising at first, seemed a bit contrived upon further reflection.
I will preface my comments by saying that I am giving the benefit of the doubt to those involved in the dustup at the Ford 300, due to an unfortunate incident that took place this week in my own life. On Tuesday, the unthinkable happened: I was accused of being party to something so seditious, unsavory, and immoral, that it is repulsive and hateful to me on so many different levels:
Collusion in a fantasy football trade.
That being said, what transpired on the track was supposed to be a matter of happenstance… one which was announced a week ahead of time. We all remember Hamlin’s line of wanting to be the first to the pay window to cash in his Brad Keselowski chips, his temper boiling over following the latest in a long line of on-track contact between the two. For while the young driver from Rochester Hills, Michigan has made more than a few enemies this year, it’s Hamlin who’s worked his way to a level of hatred unmatched by anyone else. Keselowski set him off at Dover after a late-race spin, then once again at Phoenix after Hamlin tried to spin him out after a restart. That left his rival with two crumpled-up racecars in slightly less than a two month span – and his frustration level sitting at an all-time high.
Responding swiftly to the carnage, Hamlin assured everyone in his post-race interview that day he would “handle Keselowski” at Homestead, and would not need NASCAR’s assistance in taking care of business on his own.
Turns out he was a man of his word. Coming off turn 4 on lap 35, Hamlin got his nose up under Keselowski’s rear bumper and sent him spinning – harmlessly – down the frontstretch. The crowd… all 48,000 (ahem) of them went wild. Or at least took notice. Some probably stood up, I bet.
So was Hamlin trying to spin him? Yes. Was he trying to wreck him? Not exactly.
If you go back and watch the replay, there was nobody within 100 yards of the two drivers, and Hamlin picked a spot where he could regain control of his car. If he really meant to end Keselowski’s day, he would have done what Juan Pablo Montoya did a day later to Tony Stewart – plow into him and buckle the hood between turns 3 and 4, sending him sideways down into the pit wall. Instead, Hamlin punted him gently, and allowed his rival the opportunity to regain control of his No. 88 Chevrolet as he scooted on by.
After getting Keselowski’s number, Hamlin’s was promptly posted by NASCAR, and was summoned to the pits for a penalty… kind of. For in the end, the one-lap break that served as his “sentence” from NASCAR was about as devastating as the donuts executed by Keselowski. By way of the Lucky Dog wave-around, Hamlin got back on the lead lap to contend again for the win, easily working his way back up to finish fifth. It was a shocking result from a premeditated punt that in years past would have resulted in being called out onto the carpet, a fine or possibly even a suspension – a la Kevin Harvick in 2002 following a Truck Series incident which earned him a day off from Cup competition at Martinsville.
So the post-race pomp and circumstance surrounding what was a rather innocuous spin was probably a bit overhyped. As Hamlin stood there with his Coke Zero (label facing out), he said he felt great and was amazed at how many people on pit road were laughing and congratulating him as he came down afterwards.
So was it for real, or was it all just theater? You be the judge.
NASCAR penalized him for just one lap, where normally when there is a case of aggressive or reckless driving, and a competitor makes good on a week old threat, they would park them for five. When you make that comparison, it seems the driver earned little more than a shame-shame-everyone-knows-your-name admonishment by NASCAR.
And as for the guy he spun out? Keselowski would finish the race in 12th position, but was never a contender for the race win or the championship – nor was he in danger of losing any spots in the point standings, having an 806-point lead over Jason Leffler in fourth place. As the old saying goes, no harm, no foul… or is it cry foul?
So neither side had much to lose going into the tussle… and both came out virtually unscathed. Add to that a message from race control that their feud was now over, and it seems it put a period on perhaps the one chance to continue what was finally a legitimate rivalry in NASCAR.
What also was refreshing for the Nationwide Series – if not a bit frustrating – was to have such a legitimately good race all afternoon and it not occur until 35 events into the season. The battle between Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano and Hamlin was a snapshot of what the Nationwide Series used to be when it was the Busch Series years ago… even though technically you could have called 2009 the Busch Series, in honor of Busch’s obscene record of finishing first or second 20 times during the year en route to his first career NASCAR championship.
The No. 18 Z-Line Camry or NOS Energy Toyota quickly has become what Mark Martin’s No. 60 Winn-Dixie Fords were through the 1990s, in what used to be a feeder series for the Cup level but in recent years has become a test session tuneup for the majority of the field competing on Sunday. But while Saturday was Busch’s ninth win of his season, capping off his championship ride for 2009, there was still some action on the track – and through the field – that made me nostalgic for the way things used to be.
Edwards’s Broken Arrow/Hail Mary effort on the final turn of the last lap was a fitting end to the race and a tribute to the history of the series, as was the dicing in the pack between David Reutimann and Scott Speed. It was an event that reminded us all of what the Nationwide Series once was: close racing filled with tire strategy, and an opportunity for up and coming drivers to learn from the veterans – even if that meant taking a ride off their front bumper.
Reviving memories of old is the best thing that can happen for this series right now, and the Ford 300 did just that. For while the punishment from NASCAR seemed a little more than a slap on the wrist for an incident that seemed planned in detail, the self-policing “justice” doled out by Sheriff Hamlin was a throwback to the way things used to be handled. Maybe it is a sign that NASCAR has recognized the need to return to its roots (no, not moonshine), and get back to the way things were in previous eras that saw the Nationwide Series as one of the most endearing racing series in motorsports.