Denny Hamlin has every right to be frustrated.
The first Sprint Cup race he’s missed since becoming the full-time driver of the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing is rapidly approaching. Martinsville is one of his best tracks statistically, and he’ll be atop his team’s pit box next to crew chief Darian Grubb while Mark Martin drives the car.
As you’ve read, oh, fifty, sixty, seventy times since that race on March 24, the injury Hamlin suffered came when after he and Joey Logano made contact in turns three and four on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway. After the two banged sidepanels and drifted towards the outside wall, Hamlin’s car made a hard left turn and went careening towards the inside wall. An inside wall that didn’t have a SAFER barrier. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture to his L1 vertebra, an injury that will likely keep him out of the car for five races.
Of course, it’s not as simple as a final lap “racin’ deal.” The week prior at Bristol, Hamlin had spun Logano as the two were racing for second place. Logano, after talking to Hamlin briefly after the race, said that Hamlin had one coming.
“Obviously I know who I’m racing against and what happened a week before but going into turn three on the last lap, I remember ‘I’m going to win the race,’” Logano said on ESPN Tuesday. “My number one goal is to go win a race. So did I intentionally wreck him? No, I did not intentionally do that. If I was going to do that I would have hit him in the left-rear tire. I hit him in the door. It’s hard racing at that point.”
Hamlin said Thursday that he didn’t blame Logano for the injury, but did for the crash at California.
“(I do not blame him) for the particular injury; I do for the wreck,” Hamlin told a group of reporters on Wednesday. “I think the injury was circumstantial. For what happened, I think it’s just a product of wrecking on a 2-mile speedway, you risk getting hurt.”
The type of track is the crux of Hamlin’s argument. Logano’s comments about the crash sounded awfully similar to Hamlin’s after Bristol. At Bristol, Hamlin said that he had meant to make contact with Logano, but that he didn’t want to spin him.
“I didn’t see it as a huge deal,” Hamlin said before the race at California. “People at Bristol make contact. Where my frustration level was, people didn’t see the three times I got cut off before you saw it on TV, one time giving us left front damage. So that ticked me off, and obviously my way of retaliating was to nudge him. Well, I shouldn’t have nudged him in the spot where I did, and he spun out.”
While Hamlin’s frustration about the injury and seeing his chances for the win at California disappear like they did is understandable, should he have been expecting Logano to treat him the same way he treated Logano at Bristol, even if he personally felt that Auto Club wouldn’t be the right place to back up his words with actions?
Generally, short track races have served as the sport’s grudge levelers, as the higher speeds and spread out nature of NASCAR’s intermediate tracks don’t usually lend themselves to many opportunities for revenge. But how often do you find yourself racing for the win on the final lap alongside the driver who crashed you the week prior? Would Hamlin’s actions on that final corner had been any different had the roles been reversed? (Logano has also been on the wrong side of intentional contact at larger tracks before, having been bumped out of the way for the lead approaching the white flag at Pocono in 2010.)
''How is (the contact) not intentional? It's not like he got loose because I took air off him,'' Hamlin said Thursday. ''I saw him getting closer, and I moved up the track. He was just going to keep going until he ran into us. Whatever happened after that, I'm sure he didn't mean to wreck or get me hurt, but he meant to run into us, there's no doubt. He didn't get loose with the back. He drove into us with the front. That's a guy seeing I was going to get the better of him that week. He wasn't going to let that happen. He hit the gas until he hit something.''
There’s a difference between aggressive driving to cause contact and aggressive driving to cause a crash, and both drivers claim their actions were intended to be the former, though they resulted in unintentional consequences. The debate if Logano’s actions were appropriate at a track with speeds that reach as high as they do at California will continue; Hamlin certainly doesn’t think so. Is there a right answer? Or are the lines simply blurred or nonexistent?