Did You Notice? … Joey Logano has a history of aggressive on-track behavior? That’s what Denny Hamlin thinks anyway, after being asked why he didn’t knock the No. 22 Ford out of the way in the closing laps of Monday’s (March 29) Food City Dirt Race.
“I think me and the No. 22 race differently,” Hamlin said when asked why he didn’t use force to take the win. “I don’t have that mentality.”
Hamlin’s swipe at Logano is nothing new; there’s been no love lost between these two drivers for nearly a decade. Their first run-in came back in 2013, during a final-lap race for the win at Auto Club Speedway and Logano’s first year with Team Penske. Coming off turns 3 and 4, Logano made contact with the No. 11 Toyota and sent Hamlin hard into the inside wall while Kyle Busch snuck by them both to take the win.
The force of that wreck caused a compression fracture in Hamlin’s lower back, an injury that kept him out of four races that year and permanently altered his opinion of Logano.
“If it wasn’t intentional,” he said later, “It’s the worst case of car control I’ve ever seen as a driver.”
Logano’s aggression wasn’t limited to just Hamlin, though. The most infamous incident came in the fall of 2015 when he spun Matt Kenseth late in the race to take the win at Kansas Speedway.
Kenseth was so angry after the crash, which kept him from advancing in the NASCAR playoffs, that he sought on-track retribution a month later at Martinsville Speedway. A payback wreck ensued that was one of the most blatant intentional moves in NASCAR’s modern era, causing a suspension for Kenseth but achieving its desired result: Logano was shut out of the Championship 4 in a year he won a career-best six races.
Since then, Logano’s most infamous move is also one that happened at Martinsville, indirectly responsible for his 2018 Cup Series championship. Running second to Martin Truex Jr., he executed the bump-and-run on the final lap Hamlin avoided in order to capture the victory and an automatic spot in the Championship 4.
“Miami,” he said afterward, referring to the playoff finale. “Just thinking about Miami. Thinking about how we can win a championship in this car. At the end of the race, you’re going to have some bumping and grinding at the end.”
There have been smaller incidents along the way these past several years: a spin-turned-fight with Kyle Busch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (2017), a few issues with Kevin Harvick (2010, 2015) and even some tussles with current teammate Brad Keselowski (2020).
“Aggressive sometimes works for me,” Logano said. “I usually stay that way.”
The question is whether it’s fair to say his aggression is still as extreme as Hamlin makes you believe.
Flashback to Bristol, June 2020: the very track these drivers raced on this week. It was Logano on the wrong end of some bumper cars behavior as Chase Elliott made contact while battling for the win. (In that case, both drivers lost as Keselowski took advantage of the incident).
Logano did recover to make the postseason easily, then advance to the Championship 4 behind an impressive battle with Harvick at Kansas Speedway. On older tires, Logano was able to eke ahead of Harvick and stay there with the low-horsepower, high-downforce package that makes it impossible to pass. It’s the type of subtle aggression a driver of his caliber can utilize in several ways. He’s done it as a lapped car, preventing Kyle Busch from winning Bristol last fall or working as a pick to help teammate Ryan Blaney catch leader Kyle Larson at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
That said, 2021 hasn’t been filled with bulldozer-type moments. Instead, Logano was the one blowing chances over the first few races, letting a couple of wins slip away in the closing laps. He got wrecked by Keselowski through blocking in the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500, then let Christopher Bell slip by without incident for a victory on the Daytona International Speedway road course one week later. At Phoenix Raceway two weeks ago, Truex snuck ahead on a restart and didn’t feel the wrath of Logano’s front bumper.
The No. 22 settled for second (or worse) each time. Would we have seen the same type of behavior a few years ago? At age 30, could Logano be maturing before our eyes?
One could say the same for Hamlin at age 40, too. It’s not like the No. 11 Toyota driver’s been devoid of aggression his entire career. There was the 2017 spin of Chase Elliott at Martinsville that kept Elliott from advancing to the Championship 4. Keselowski and even Danica Patrick have felt the force of Hamlin’s front bumper.
Frankly, you could say a “no contact” finish shows some progress in how both of them are racing. Trash talking aside, the two are giving each other more respect on the racetrack, a gentlemanly truce that appears poised to continue … regardless of what Hamlin might say.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- The dirt ringers had a heck of a time on Monday. But give Stewart Friesen some credit. 23rd in his Cup debut, with a team in Spire Motorsports that typically doesn’t run close to the front, is respectable his first time out. Current Rookie of the Year point leader Chase Briscoe, by comparison, has finished no better than 18th in his first seven Cup starts with far better equipment.
- Speaking of Spire, check out this heartwarming surprise from Corey LaJoie to an eighth-grade fan who wrote him a letter. (Warning: Kleenex advised).
- Another week, another race without a Stewart-Haas Racing car inside the top 15 besides Kevin Harvick. Cole Custer is “best of the rest” at SHR and sits 54 points outside the final playoff spot. It’s a pretty big hole to dig out of this early.
- As I wrote at CBS Sports this week, give NASCAR credit for making chicken salad out of what could have been a disastrous dirt debut at Bristol. Would we have seen them do that just a few years ago? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding no. A change in leadership always has top-down consequences: in this case, they’ve got the sport headed back in the right direction.