At around Lap 350 of the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville on Sunday, eventual-winner Tony Stewart was very close to going a lap down.
How close, you say? It wasn't seconds or car lengths. It was mere feet.
Race leader Denny Hamlin was hounding Stewart. When Hamlin got to him, Stewart gave him the bottom of the racetrack. Hamlin took it. But every time he got to the inside of Stewart, Hamlin couldn't do much more than get inside Stewart's left-rear quarterpanel, as Stewart didn't give Hamlin much more than the bottom lane.
"I was reminded by [crew chief] Darian [Grubb] this morning, I was reminded by my spotter this morning, and I was reminded before the race by many crew members to not be so nice today, which I know sounds odd of me," Stewart said after the race.
It was the same tactic that Stewart used on Jimmie Johnson on the race's final restart with three laps to go. Stewart, on the high side, pinched Johnson down towards the curb, essentially giving the five-time champion two choices. Back off to not run into the curb, or smack Stewart's car in the left-rear.
Hamlin (and Johnson) went the clean route and avoided any contact. It kept Stewart on the lead lap when a caution flag flew on Lap 361 and won him the race on Lap 498.
The battle with Hamlin caused Hamlin some frustration, leading him to muse over the radio that Stewart wouldn't have given him the same respect if the tables were turned. After the caution flew, Stewart apologized to Hamlin for racing him so hard — but said that's what he had to do to stay on the lead lap.
And anyway, should Stewart have let Hamlin by without trying as hard as possible to keep him at bay? Ultimately, it was a move that didn't cause any contact and probably won him the race.
- Tony Stewart
- Denny Hamlin
- Jimmie Johnson