NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Crossing the Dirty Line – When Drivers Do, When They Don’t & How Dirty Is It, Anyway?

Todd Bodine “thanked” Kyle Busch in victory lane at Kentucky this past Friday, calling Busch’s move that took the air off Bodine’s truck, causing him to spin, “dirty.” A lot of people jumped on one bandwagon or another. Many agreed with Bodine’s assessment of Busch, while others didn’t think the move was even a little spotty and were quick to point out that Bodine has had a run-in or several in his career.

Busch’s move on Bodine was far from dirty, but that doesn’t exonerate him completely.

A couple of weeks ago at Bristol, Busch was racing through the field early when he came upon Jennifer Jo Cobb in a slower and ill-handling truck. Instead of waiting a few laps until he could make the pass on Cobb, Busch simply punted her, ending her race early. That, race fans, is a dirty move.

But how about some other tried and true racing moves? Where do they rate? Let’s take a look at some racing moves that are made deliberately. Incidental moves happen, and sometimes there’s glaringly obvious blame to lay, intentional or not. But what of those made on purpose? Is deliberate contact dirty racing or just racing? It depends on the move.

We’ll start with the incidents in question.

The move: Wrecking a slower car or truck which could have been passed cleanly with patience
My call: Dirty

There is no excuse for what Busch did to Cobb at Bristol. Had she been racing him hard from a lap or more down, Busch might have a case, but Cobb wasn’t doing that; she was running her own race and trying to stay out of the way. It was so early in the race and Cobb was such a non-factor that Busch really had plenty of time to make a clean pass. That he chose to wreck her instead doesn’t really speak well for Busch.

The move: Taking the air off another driver’s car or truck, causing it to get loose or spin out
My call: Not dirty

This is one case in which the move is part of racing strategy. If another driver’s car is handling poorly in traffic, and someone can take advantage of it, more power to him. If a racecar is ill-handling enough, it’s that driver’s responsibility to save it. Now, if Busch had been racing that way all night long and intentionally spinning everyone who challenged him… well, yeah, that would be a bit dirty. But he didn’t. He could have given Bodine more room; Bodine could have backed off if his truck didn’t handle. Besides in this case, the spin actually helped Bodine by altering his pit strategy and allowing him to stretch fuel all the way to the checkered flag.

The move: The Bump & Run
My call: Not dirty, if it’s done right

A correctly executed bump-and-run does not wreck the bumpee – it moves him up the track so that the bumper can pass cleanly underneath. It also doesn’t happen in the opening laps of the race; it’s a move reserved for racing for position in the closing laps. When it works, someone goes home mad, but with an intact racecar. A textbook example of a bump-and-run done right was a pair of them which took place at Loudon this summer; Kurt Busch moved Jimmie Johnson with a handful of laps to go and Johnson repaid the favor for the race win. Neither driver’s car ended up in the wall or on the tailhook of the wrecker. Again, the key here is that the move must be done correctly, and if a driver can’t do it right, he has no business doing it at all.

The move: A car that is several laps down races the leaders like he’s racing with them, and takes one or more of them out as a result
My call: Less than clean

First of all, let me clarify… if the lapped car is racing another lapped car for position and the leaders are also there, that’s a totally different scenario. I’m speaking of the lapped driver who is the only one in a pack of leaders. Yes, it’s a race, but there is such a thing as sportsmanship. Dumping a driver with a real chance to win from laps down is just sleazy and totally unnecessary. The one exception to this is when drivers show a little teamwork from a lap pr more down and try to hold up, but NOT wreck, a teammate’s opponent at the front. They’re called teammates for a reason, and if they hold the other guy up cleanly, more power to ‘em.

The move: The revenge wreck
My call: It depends

What does it depend on? It depends on who is at fault for the original incident and the manner in which they exact their revenge. Carl Edwards’s move on Brad Keselowski at Atlanta this spring is the dirty side of this coin. Not only did he wreck Keselowski much, much harder than was necessary to “police” any earlier incident, the earlier incident in question was entirely Edwards’s fault-and he admitted it. The racecars today are unpredictable and unstable in the air, and the drivers know that. Therefore, while Edwards may not have planned to flip Keselowski, he meant to… because he meant to hit him and come what may after that.

Another, less extreme example of the same was the incident at Bristol between Kyle Busch and Keselowski. Busch made an ill-timed slide-job attempt, hooked his own bumper on Keselowski’s nose and spun himself. And then he dumped Keselowski. For what? Being there? The waters in this sport part for no man.

The other side of this, which still isn’t completely white, is the retaliation move made by Denny Hamlin on Keselowski (that guy sure does know how to get his sponsors airtime) last year at Homestead. Hamlin got it right. Keselowski was at fault in a couple of previous incidents, which could have been avoided. But Hamlin waited until Keselowski was not around other drivers, and spun him in such a way that it didn’t involve other cars. Keselowski had it coming, but Hamlin didn’t put other drivers in jeopardy. That Keselowski didn’t flip helps, but it isn’t why Hamlin’s revenge was better executed. There is a fine line between policing themselves and becoming one-man vigilante gangs.

The move: The points wreck
My call: The dirtiest of them all

You don’t see this one very often, but I can recall one, a decade ago now, that stands out as the dirtiest racing move I have ever seen. It was late in the then-Craftsman Truck Series season at Dover, and the championship picture was coming into focus with Mike Wallace and Greg Biffle front and center for the title. Both were racing for established race teams and either one could have taken it-until Dover. Wallace was racing up front well into the race when he came upon Biffle’s teammate, rookie Kurt Busch. Wallace was in front of Busch, holding a fairly high line around Dover’s banks.

Heading into a corner, Busch went to the high side of Wallace despite the fact that there was no room to cleanly pass up there. Busch accelerated into the outside quarter of Wallace’s truck, causing Wallace to wreck, taking one of the hardest hits of the race. There was no reason for Busch to make that move other than to wreck Wallace. That in itself is enough for me to call it the dirtiest wreck I’ve seen in NASCAR.

Afterward, Wallace publicly questioned whether Jack Roush had ordered Busch to wreck him to improve the championship chances of Biffle and Busch. Roush denied it, but the seeds of doubt were planted. Did Busch wreck Wallace because he was a championship threat to himself and Biffle? If he did, he’s never admitted it, but Wallace hadn’t done anything that could be explained as payback, and there was no way Busch made the move to try to pass. It was made with the full intent to wreck Wallace and in a place where the wreck would cause extensive damage to Wallace’s truck. Busch won, Biffle finished second and Wallace finished 12th, off the lead lap. Whether the dump and run was for the race win or a leg up in the season standings, it was dirty, plain and simple.

Kyle Busch didn’t drive dirty against Todd Bodine on Friday, but he is guilty of not driving cleanly against others. There is a line, sometimes a fine one between racing hard and racing dirty. Most drivers try not to cross that line, although the nature of the sport dictates that they toe it; but some choose to leap over it. And if they come back with dirt on their hands, well, they earned it.

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