Watching the replay, it's difficult to judge intent. Did Denny Hamlin mean to nudge Joey Logano just enough to move him out of the way in the kind of racing fans have clamored for at Bristol Motor Speedway? Or, given recent history between the two drivers, was there a little more involved? Things happen fast in the close quarters of the half-mile track, never more so than now thanks to a record-setting new Sprint Cup car, and the end result Sunday was the yellow No. 22 going around, its back end impacting the outside wall.
And afterward -- well, we all know what happened then. Logano climbed out of his vehicle, stormed over to the No. 11 car parked conveniently near the media center, and started shouting into the cockpit before crews intervened and shoving ensued. Just another memorable day at Bristol, where the fireworks above the track are often outshined by those popping off below. Sunday's antics came seven months after Tony Stewart capped the previous Bristol race by tossing his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car.
And yet, that earlier episode was provided a certain gravity by the fact the combatants shared four premier-series championships between them and were viewed more or less as antagonists on equal footing. Neither driver was in a position to simply dismiss the other, a common thread seen throughout so many Bristol feuds, be it Dale Earnhardt against Rusty Wallace or Kevin Harvick against Greg Biffle or Kenseth against Jeff Gordon. So often, those thrown water bottles or tossed helmets or pit-road shoves have been exchanged between competitors who viewed one another as peers.
Was that the case Sunday? It's difficult to believe so, given Hamlin's reaction. "He said he's coming for me," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said of his former teammate. "I usually don't see him, so it's usually not a factor." It was a cutting response that underscored the stark differences in on-track accomplishments between the two drivers -- one with 22 victories who's made the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year, another who's won twice and never qualified for the playoff. Fair or not, NASCAR is a performance-based sport, and performance matters even if only to solidify the ground on which a driver attempts to take a stand.
Granted, this doesn't seem to have much to do with who was right and who was wrong Sunday at Bristol, which on the surface appeared to be one of those racing deals on a short track that punches them out with regularity. But even if he does feel like the victim here, there's only one way for a driver like Logano to get even with a driver like Hamlin, and that's to consistently outrun him -- or run even with him -- on the race track. Until he gets to that point, words alone simply can't carry enough weight, particularly in a situation where it's unclear who exactly is at fault.
No question Logano is trying to get there, and that effort clearly plays into all this, given that he was running among the leaders when the incident occurred. Understandably, he views the race as a missed opportunity. "It's frustrating when you've got a car that can possibly win it, and to get taken out from something like that is just frustrating," he said Sunday. "This team deserves better. We've run better than we've finished every week so far. We should have at least four top 10s in my eyes." Instead, he has yet to finish better than 12th.
Now, none of this should be seen as an indictment of Logano, whom no less than Roger Penske and Brad Keselowski thought enough of make him a teammate to the reigning Sprint Cup champion. The 22-year-old broke in at such at early age, and has been around NASCAR so long already that it's easy to forget how young he is and how much potential he still has ahead of him. He already seems more comfortable and confident in his current ride than he did during his days with Gibbs. True to his word, he's more of a threat to win races now than he's ever been.
But that doesn't change the fact that with actions like Sunday's, he's only setting himself up. His remark three years ago about Harvick's wife wearing the firesuit in the family -- great line at the time, no question -- got turned around on him when DeLana Harvick started using it on T-shirts. Now Bristol, and Hamlin dismissing him in so many words. Even compliments can come out backhanded: "He's a good little racer," Kyle Busch said of Logano, in what was intended as a term of affection. It all paints a scenario akin to a younger brother who the big kids won't take seriously until he starts beating them.
Toward that end, an opportunity presents itself every week. Sure, some folks will clamor for Logano to seek revenge. But Auto Club Speedway, a lightning-fast layout where the Generation-6 car promises to smash another track record, is not the place to look for it. Martinsville looms two weeks later, but taking out Hamlin on a track where he's a favorite to win is a sure way to lose the moral high ground. Besides, which would make more of a statement -- Logano dumping Hamlin, or outrunning him at a facility where he's won four times?
Easy answer. The former entrenches a reputation of a young driver impatient to break through, the latter shows a more seasoned competitor in the midst of doing just that. And the next time Joey Logano leans into someone else's car to voice displeasure, his adversary will have no choice but to listen. Because in NASCAR, nothing speaks louder than performance.
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- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Joey Logano
- Denny Hamlin
- Bristol Motor Speedway