Depending on the circumstances in Homestead in a few weeks, Martinsville could turn out to be the most meaningful, impactful race of the season. Not only did Jeff Gordon advance to the championship race in his final season (after he hadn’t won a race all year), but championship favorite Joey Logano may very well miss the Chase championship after payback from Matt Kenseth.
And don’t tell me that it wasn’t intentional. Despite Kenseth’s “the splitter was dragging… it wouldn’t turn” comments following the wreck with Logano, it’s pretty safe to say that absolutely no one believes him. Especially since he followed that up with this comment:
“Well, like I said some days you get put in spots you don’t want to be in for sure. I would much rather be out there racing for a win than to be in that spot. I had two chances to win I think in the last three weeks and I got wrecked out of both of them going for the lead. One from him [Logano] and one from Brad [Keselowski] so that’s disappointing. We should have never been in that spot trying to limp that car around and get the finish.”
Kenseth never actually denied wrecking Logano on purpose.
Let’s be honest: Kenseth isn’t fooling anyone. This has been stewing since Kansas Speedway, where Logano spun Kenseth in the closing laps in the race and went on to win. That spin, combined with a poor result the next week at Talladega, eliminated Kenseth from championship contention. Despite the fact that Kenseth downplayed the need or want for any payback at the time, it’s now crystal clear he’s been waiting for the right moment the last few weeks.
Payback is nothing new in racing – NASCAR or otherwise – but watching a driver intentionally run another car right into the wall was admittedly a little gut-wrenching. Spinning a car while racing for the lead is one thing. Having a lapped car wait for the leader to pass and then intentionally shove him up into the wall – causing tremendous amounts of damage to both cars – is shocking behavior for Kenseth, a veteran of the sport who is usually an advocate for levelheaded racing.
Now, it is true that Kenseth had a car capable of winning and it was contact from Logano’s teammate Keselowski that caused Kenseth to be laps down in the first place. Yes, this was the third week in a row that contact from another car caused Kenseth to have a poor finish when he had an otherwise strong car. Yes, the issues with Logano, Kenseth, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing are deep-seated and go back much further than the last few weeks.
Despite that… accelerating into another car, running them up the track, and not stopping until the car is plastered up against the wall is unacceptable. If Kenseth was attempting to pay Logano back for Kansas, he did that and then some. Is that really how the championship should be determined?
Despite its long history in the sport, payback – like talk – is cheap. (Not that spinning someone out to win a race isn’t cheap, too, but I digress.) Anyone can go out there and wreck someone (just ask Danica Patrick). It doesn’t really require any skill or talent, especially if you go out and wreck your own car in the process. It doesn’t prove anything.
With that in mind, it’s pretty clear that Kenseth was dead set on putting the fender to the back end of that No. 22 car at some point. There’s no changing that. Kenseth moved Logano out of the way while the two were racing for position earlier in that race and that apparently wasn’t good enough. No, Kenseth had to take it a step further.
Instead, here’s what Kenseth should have done. Rather than causing copious amounts of damage to both vehicles, the incident should have been a bit more subtle. As the No. 22 came around and attempted to pass the lapped No. 20 car, instead of running Logano up the track, Kenseth should have just held his line into the corner. Similar to what Logano did in Kansas, Kenseth should have driven straight into the corner and taken Logano’s line. When Logano went into the corner, the front of Kenseth’s car would have clipped the rear of Logano’s car, and the No. 22 car would have went right around.
Logano may not have hit the wall (or at least not as hard) and it wouldn’t have been as flashy. But it would have certainly ruined Logano’s chances at winning the same way it did Kenseth’s at Kansas. And when reporters come to Kenseth asking what happened, his response is simple.
“I think we both went for the same piece of real estate. We both went into that corner hard. I wanted to get position and get to the inside of him, and then he went for the same piece of real estate, as well.”
Sound familiar? That’s what Logano said in his post-race press conference after Kansas Speedway. Had Kenseth pulled something similar he could just play innocent. “Yeah, I got into him, but we were both going into the corner and, oh gosh golly gee, we got into each other. Oh well, that’s racing!”
Wrecking someone may not take a lot of skill, but doing it in a way that is subtle enough that it can be written off as potentially an accident is a little trickier; something a wily veteran like Kenseth could likely pull off. Oh, sure, no one would have believed it was an accident, but without irrefutable evidence, you can’t say for sure. Just ask Kevin Harvick about that last lap accident at Talladega.
NASCAR might have warned non-Chasers not to impact the championship and Kenseth may have gotten a stern talking to, but if there was enough doubt left on the table that Kenseth truly didn’t mean to spin Logano, what could NASCAR really do?
Instead, Kenseth is now likely to face some sort of penalty. NASCAR has warned drivers time and time again not to interfere with the championship. With Kenseth eliminated from Chase contention, he was considered a non-Chaser this weekend. A sticking point for NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell was that a lapped car wrecked a lead-lap car, another no-no. Kenseth pulled a double whammy and is now likely to face steep repercussions, despite an overwhelmingly supportive reaction from fans at Martinsville.
Of course, one could make that argument that Kenseth doesn’t really have much to lose anyway. But why risk a fine, points, or even a suspension by blatantly wrecking a guy and then denying it when he could have pulled the same thing in a way that would have left enough doubt that Kenseth may have gotten off with little more than a wrist slapping?
Maybe it was more satisfying for Kenseth to just straight run Logano into the wall. Perhaps the crunch of metal and the flying sparks were what he was looking for. Oh and watching the innocent crew members on each time have to fix severely damaged racecars surely added to the feeling of settling the score.
Now the only question remaining is whether or not this is over, and how much further NASCAR lets it go.