This past weekend’s races at Martinsville Speedway brought up some conversation about drivers’ respect for others. Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton was particularly brash about his thoughts, saying the only way to handle the lack of respect is to “punch someone in the mouth.”
With Crafton’s mentality being an old-school approach, many suggested that NASCAR should step in and police drivers for the way they race. So that begs the question: Should NASCAR police the drivers and stop disrespectful racing, or should the drivers police themselves? Ava Ladner and Adam Cheek debate.
Permit Personal Policing
NASCAR drivers are (usually) pretty smart about things when it comes to retaliation and respectful racing.
Sure, there’s the occasional instance where something goes too far — Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer at Phoenix Raceway in 2012 all come to mind — but, typically, things are resolved in a tactful and subdued manner. Or, sometimes, off-track entirely, where drivers chat mid-week and come to an understanding.
Smarter, less dangerous — or at least more reserved — examples of retaliation include Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin at Phoenix in 2017, where Elliott walled the No. 11 after prior contact at Martinsville. Some are spectacular, like Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2010 or Brian Vickers sending Tony Stewart atop the tire barrier at Sonoma Raceway in 2011.
It’s not often that a Quin Houff goes after a Chase Elliott or vice versa, though something of that sort happened with John Hunter Nemechek and Austin Wayne Self on Saturday (Oct. 30). Nemechek didn’t get a chance to strike back at Self since the No. 4 truck was totaled, but it’ll be a non-issue this week at Phoenix with Nemechek racing for a title.
Retaliation and vengeance have always been part of the sport. Righting a wrong is important to drivers and personal in a way it isn’t in other sports.
In baseball, there’s the practice of (dangerously) throwing at a batter if they showed a pitcher up in a previous plate appearance; sometimes with malicious intent, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s just to brush them back. Either way, there’s the potential for a benches-, dugout- and bullpen-clearing brawl or confrontation in the infield.
Same goes for football and basketball, to a lesser extent; of the four major North American sports, hockey is the closest it gets to the individuality of racing and subsequent confrontations. Hockey is still a team sport, however, and some of the time it’s a player fighting on behalf of a teammate.
No better example than the 1997 fight during a matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, where tensions boiled over after the pair faced off in the 1996 conference finals and a Claude Lemieux check left the Wings’ Kris Draper with a broken jaw, cheek and orbital bone.
Fight after fight ensued during the 1997 game, including the infamous (and wildly entertaining classic) goalie duel between Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. This was all started by the boarding of their teammate nearly a full year prior, yet even the near-individuality of hockey retaliation doesn’t compare to that of motorsports.
It’s almost exclusively driver vs. driver. We rarely, if ever, see crew chiefs going after one another (though Junior Joiner and Trip Bruce this past Camping World Truck Series race might beg to differ), nor individual crew members or owners. Drivers are their own organism and their beef lies with their aggressor; plus, we seldom see a driver hunting down a competitor who wronged their teammate rather than them.
NASCAR is an individualistic discipline. It’s exemplified in the pure nature of the sport, which lies in 40 drivers, give or take, sitting alone in a car or truck for two, three, four hours with their only outside communication going over a radio (and sometimes some hand gestures out the window). That solitude allows for a good amount of premeditation, planning, stewing and anger to coalesce.
This also extends to IndyCar, Formula 1 and pretty much everything else. Even rally racing, though the exception there is the driver-and-navigator pairings.
It’s a form of tunnel vision, too: someone gets put in the wall and their race ruined, there’s no doubt their single mindset is to make their way to the person that wronged them and repay the favor. The solitude helps with that buildup of anger.
Was Hamlin’s Halloween burnout interference, for lack of a better term, on Sunday (Oct. 31) at Martinsville a bit too far? Probably. The last time we’ve seen that happen was…never? Martinsville is an inherently contact-heavy track, and that goes for Bowman-Hamlin on Sunday, Hamlin-Elliott in 2017, all (or at least most) of the incidents the track’s had happen on its half-mile surface.
Sometimes it’s racing incidents or the type of track that leads to these incidents, sometimes it’s a driver with an agenda when their four wheels hit the asphalt.
At the end of the day, there’s only so much that NASCAR can do, because it’s the drivers behind the wheels of the cars and they’ll do what feels justified in the moment. – Adam Cheek
Eventually It’s Time for NASCAR to Step In
Is there something missing to this question? The answer seems so simple that there can barely be an argument against having NASCAR maintain order over the sport. If this question is supposed to point more directly toward short-track racing, it still makes it a moot point.
The reason for this question seems to stem from Denny Hamlin thinking he had the right to park his No. 11 on the frontstretch in a way to upend Alex Bowman’s victory celebration. Hamlin, irate after being spun by Bowman a few laps earlier, felt the best way to express his anger was by showing himself to be a petulant child, first by blocking Bowman and then by pushing into the No. 48’s front end and trying to shove it down the straight.
Hamlin’s poor decision-making skills did not happen during the race, however. In this case, he performed his puerile actions after the race had been scored and the danger to anyone was minimal. This situation left NASCAR in a peculiar position of trying to keep order over a champion-contending driver for a foolish move coming after the competition. The best-case scenario for Hamlin came when his crew chief kept calm and told Hamlin to “think of the big picture.”
As Hamlin drove off, NASCAR avoided being put in a place that necessitated it penalizing the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. That does not mean that NASCAR might have not considered it. More importantly, had Hamlin continued with his boorish behavior, there is more likelihood that they would have.
But perhaps more attention should be paid to the Kyle Busch altercation – and that does not mean going in on a thinkpiece about Busch using a slur and subsequently being whip-cracked by NASCAR, an organization still dealing with the penumbra from Kyle Larson’s slur usage. Instead, look at the footage from Martin Truex Jr.’s car after the top four had crossed the finish line.
Ride with MTJ as he crosses line 4th and LOCKS his way into the Final 4.
Also, Kyle Busch turning dead left on Brad Keselowski. pic.twitter.com/o7VW4MetY1
— MTJ HUB (@MTJhub) October 31, 2021
For the entirety of the race, Busch and Keselowski had raced each other clean. On multiple occasions either could have dumped the other and no one would have considered it more than a racing incident. On the whole, consider it surprising that the two raced each other so gentlemanly.
That’s what makes the post-finish incident so peculiar and is exactly the type of circumstance NASCAR needs to show its authoritative position. Whereas Hamlin attacking Bowman had little in the way of danger accompanying it, seeing Busch get punted offers a better example of an issue.
The truth is that NASCAR walks a tightrope. In Formula 1, contact is adjudicated and discouraged and dealt with both during the grand prix and frequently after. IndyCar offers its own in-race penalties and seeks to maintain control of the field. But NASCAR plays in the grey area, bouncing between the silly ‘Boys Have at It’ mantra while also trying to protect the livelihoods of the participants.
The cars are so safe that punishing the drivers almost seems silly on the grounds of endangerment. It shouldn’t. No matter how safe the cars are, there is still danger in motorsport.
NASCAR has been loose with the rules for much of the season but the organization should have started to show some backbone when Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott decided to turn racetracks into their private playground. Playing games of chicken and retaliation with a 3,600-pound vehicle is not only lunacy (no matter how much skill the drivers have) but it also sets up the issue of what racing is supposed to be.
A little bit of rubbin’ is not such a bad thing. But flat out dumping someone does not take skill. Seeking on the track not only endangers the target but everyone else out there. How is dumping someone a show of speed and handling?
Hint: it’s not.
The whole goal of having a governing body is to, govern. The concept seems so simple but sometimes NASCAR takes such a lackadaisical approach that it forgets that it should be in charge. Sure, having the drivers ‘police’ themselves is fun, and there are unwritten codes of behavior in every sport, but NASCAR has a job to do and should quit leaving it to the very people they are supposed to look out for. – Ava Ladner
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