Kyle Busch offered an uncomplicated remedy for Denny Hamlin’s predicament.
“Keep your mouth shut,” Busch said. “Simple as that.”
Busch said this in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center as a response to a question regarding the hefty penalty NASCAR dealt Hamlin earlier this week: The sanctioning body determined that the driver of the No. 11 Cup car was guilty of “attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race,” of “wrecking or spinning another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result” — and of taking “actions that NASCAR finds to be detrimental to stock car racing.”
The action in question occurred late in the Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway last weekend, when Hamlin nudged Ross Chastain into the fence on a turn to prevent the No. 1 car from a good finish. Hamlin finished 23rd; Chastain finished 24th.
No penalty was levied immediately after the race. Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, later said that “when you look at this one this past weekend, we would’ve viewed that as a racing incident.”
But then Hamlin hopped on his podcast and explained that his run at Chastain was, in fact, intentional — a move meant to punctuate a beef between Hamlin and Chastain that has now spanned two seasons — and NASCAR got involved from there.
The sanctioning body ultimately fined Hamlin $50,000 and the loss of 25 driver points.
Hamlin initially expressed that he wouldn’t appeal NASCAR’s decision, but announced that he’d go through the appeals process on Friday. Why the change of heart? Hamlin didn’t exactly address it on Saturday.
“I got the shingles vaccination,” Hamlin said in deadpan jest, his polarizing persona pridefully poking through.
Any other meaningful follow up questions to Hamlin were met with equal insight: “I got nothing to say,” he’d say, or “Can’t wait for Atlanta,” and so on.
That doesn’t mean other drivers didn’t have plenty to say on the matter.
“I think those were easy responses,” Kevin Harvick said of NASCAR’s penalties levied to Hamlin. “It’s like going to court and saying you’re guilty. I mean, it’s tough to respond differently when the plea is already guilty.”
Harvick, 47, is the most veteran driver in the Cup Series garage and among the best drivers of all-time — and he has recently wielded that power to be the sport’s voice of reason.
Harvick acknowledged that he has “done everything” in his younger, fiery years when it comes to exacting revenge on a driver that has wrecked him — one of those unwritten but essential customs unique to NASCAR. But he also added that certain moves cross lines.
“I think from a driver’s side, you still have a lot of leeway. The things that are different in today’s world is SMT (Sports Media Technology) data and all of the things that come with the data side,” Harvick said. “There are always going to be differing opinions, but I can tell you that wrecking people under the caution, and wrecking people on purpose in the state that we’re in with being prone to injuries and the way that the car crashes still — that stuff to me just needs to end.”
He added: “We’re the example. This is one thing we want to emphasize in the CARS Tour for our local, regional racers. There are lines that can be crossed. And we are the example on Sunday of what’s acceptable on Saturday night at your local short-track.”
Christopher Bell, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, said that he didn’t see Hamlin’s penalty coming.
“I was surprised that NASCAR penalized Denny because that happens a lot in our sport,” he said. “And it’s never gone penalized before. So I was surprised by that.”
Just last year, NASCAR assessed a few penalties for race manipulation. Among the most prominent examples: The sanctioning body punished William Byron for wrecking Hamlin under caution and suspended Bubba Wallace a race for totaling Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Bell considered what Hamlin did and what Byron and Wallace did in 2022 completely different.
“I think under yellow is a completely different circumstance though than under green,” Bell said. “I mean, that happens all the time, when people run into each other on purpose or not on purpose, so I was surprised by the fact that it was a penalty.”
Chastain said that he was initially mad at Hamlin’s move, but he determined that his best course of action was to step out of the car and talk to Hamlin after the race.
“I felt like getting out of the car and talking to him was the best way I could go about it,” Chastain said, adding, “What I’ve learned from all of this was there were a couple of mistakes that I’ve made that have compounded themselves — and coupled together with a guy like him, it’s going to get a lot bigger than it probably ever should’ve.”
Ross Chastain on the last lap at Phoenix, whether he knows the line of what he can and can’t do and whether he thinks the truce with Denny Hamlin is over. pic.twitter.com/gMmPaY9TZZ
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) March 18, 2023
Joey Logano considers the Hamlin wreck a “gray-area-type of call,” adding, “it’s a good thing I don’t have to make the call.” The driver of the No. 22 Cup car had his own run-ins with Chastain last year but rectified any related issues well before his run to the 2022 Cup Series championship in the fall.
Logano was asked if Hamlin’s penalty will cause drivers to be incentivized to be a bit dishonest in any post-race availability after carrying out regular retribution.
“I think you’re always smart about what you say, kind of like right now, you’re kind of putting me in a box here, trying to get me to say the wrong thing,” he said with a smile. “You gotta be smart about what you say at any moment.”
Busch expounded on his aforementioned “keep your mouth shut” advice to Hamlin on Saturday. The driver of the No. 8 car and Hamlin’s former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate added, “It’s what Logano did when he wrecked me in 2017. That was on purpose, but he didn’t admit it.”
When asked how the sport ought to address drivers intentionally colliding with each other, Busch made an impassioned appeal to all NASCAR drivers.
“We have completely lost any sense of respect in the garage area between drivers,” Busch said. “That’s where the problem lies. It’s that nobody gives two shits about anybody else, and it’s just a problem where everybody takes advantage of everybody as much as they can. We’re all selfish, granted, but there was an etiquette that once did live here. Mark (Martin) started it. I think Tony (Stewart) really lived by it. I think Jeff (Gordan) lived by it. Bobby Lobante. Rusty (Wallace) for the most part. Dale Jarrett for sure. It did exist, and it’s gone.”
Busch added: “Blame it on me, sure. I’m not taking the initiative to fix it and talk to all these younger drivers, even though I’ve talked to probably 14 of them that have come through KBM. Some of those guys have done a good job relatively speaking.
“And others, it’s in one ear, out the other.”