In a push for a shove world, Elliott definitely owed Hamlin one after Hamlin bumped Elliott’s car so hard that it spun into the wall two races ago. That contact knocked Elliott from the lead of the race with five laps to go and denied the driver of the No. 24 a potential chance at racing for the championship.
With 43 laps to go, Elliott had his chance to exact that retribution as the two drivers raced for the final spot in NASCAR’s championship race.
At first, Elliott’s move looked pretty subtle. As the two drivers exited turn 4 side-by-side, Elliott didn’t give Hamlin any room on the top side of the track. That caused contact, which pinched Hamlin into the wall and allowed Elliott to cruise ahead.
A few laps later, a tire rub from that contact with the wall turned into a flat tire for Hamlin. His car slammed into the wall in turn 3. His race and his chance for the 2017 championship was over.
“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things and it just proves that the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “I mean, it’s just part of racing. I got into him, he chose to retaliate and so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”
Hamlin was immediately villainized for what he did to Elliott at Martinsville despite his immediate admission that he didn’t intentionally try to wreck the 21-year-old driver.
Elliott — the successor to Jeff Gordon, one-time driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the son of 16-time Most Popular Driver Bill Elliott — is one of NASCAR’s biggest young stars and its strongest bridge to the sport’s glorified past. It was only natural that legions of NASCAR fans would come to his defense against a driver 16 years his senior.
Elliott said Sunday that he was simply following a mantra repeated by hundreds of drivers throughout the history of racing.
“I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it,” Elliott said.
But if Hamlin was the bad guy two weeks ago, Elliott was the bad guy on Sunday. Their actions produced the same consequences.
The code recited by Elliott clearly has some merit. It wouldn’t be the cliche it is at this point if it didn’t. And many of the same fans that supported Elliott at Martinsville are undoubtedly thrilled with what he did to Hamlin at Phoenix. Avenging a wrong in a similar fashion against an antagonist always feels good.
But what if neither driver was wrong or bad? And their actions were simply a product of NASCAR’s playoff format?
Racing etiquette can be a tricky thing. Especially the the small-sample size that is NASCAR’s playoff system. As drivers jockey to advance from three-race rounds the limits of what is and isn’t acceptable on the racetrack are always being discovered. And, typically, the findings of right and wrong have more to do with the drivers involved than the actions on the track.
If the roles were reversed at Martinsville or a polarizing driver like Kyle Busch or Joey Logano was spun into the wall or Junior played the role of the aggressor, the sympathy for the aggrieved would’ve been far more muted.
What looks like a simple bump or good hard racing to the fan of one driver can look like a dirty tactic or unnecessarily aggressive maneuver to another. In do-or-die races, those situations are bound to occur. Hell, the do-or-die races were instituted by NASCAR for those situations to occur.
What happened to Elliott at Martinsville was unfortunate. And given that he finished second on Sunday, potentially cost him a chance at not only his first win, but his first championship. But it’s also unfortunate for Hamlin that his hopes for a first title ended abruptly with a shove into the wall.
Aggressiveness — and the ability to avoid it from others — is a must in NASCAR’s playoffs. Both drivers clearly know that now.
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