Sports Xchange - Tuesday 14th November, 2017
The popular driver, who is getting a groundswell of support as he heads toward an involuntary retirement, had to share top billing with the ongoing feud between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.
In a desert scene far from the original conflict at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, the sellout crowd at the Phoenix track roared its approval when Elliott slammed Hamlin's Toyota hard enough to put it into the turn 4 wall. Social media for the most part followed suit in hyperactive response, generally saying Hamlin got what he deserved.
In the closing stages as he pursued his first career victory and advancement to the Championship 4 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Elliott decided to get past Hamlin quickly. Where he might have left another competitor enough room to possibly contest the pass down the front straight into Turn 1, Elliott cut off that option for Hamlin with a body slam.
Did Hamlin get what he deserved? Was Elliott the bad guy in this desert showdown?
The 21-year-old Elliott made a classic move, one that was certainly recognized by fans and longtime observers of the sport. Under coaching from his father Bill Elliott, the 1988 NASCAR champion, the younger Elliott took his payback when he needed it most.
"A wise man once told me that he'll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that's what I did today," Elliott said. "I raced him how he raced me, and that's the way I saw it. That's about all I have to say."
Hamlin had put himself in a position where he was subject to Elliott forgiving him for using such poor judgment at Martinsville. Forgiveness is always in short supply in stock car racing and at best Hamlin participated in his own ill fate once he fell to second place behind Kenseth, and the third-placed Elliott was ready to move past.
In a Chevy that could gain ground only in the initial stages of a green flag run, Elliott was in a hurry to improve his position in pursuit of race leader Kenseth. In theory, when a driver has been dumped, he saves the payback for when he needs it most. This was just such a time.
Another aspect of Elliott's pass was the not only the race timing, but the playoff timing. When Hamlin knocked him out of the lead at Martinsville with three laps left and took him out of a guaranteed spot in the Championship 4, there were still two playoff races remaining in the Round of 8.
At Phoenix, it was advance or fall out for five drivers. Given that Hamlin was also vying for the one remaining position in the Homestead finale available to the race winner, it made sense for Elliott to make sure he got by while skipping the usual protocol of allowing the driver on the outside enough room.
This is an ancient ritual, one that fans seem to respond positively to judging by the favorable response to Elliott hitting Hamlin's Toyota on the cool down lap at Martinsville and the roar from the packed grandstands at Phoenix. If a driver who has been dumped doesn't respond with a similarly painful payback, that driver might be subject to more disrespect in the future.
Elliott could not have predicted Hamlin would cut a tire -- he just needed past without using up his own car. In theory, he left Hamlin an opportunity to catch him and pass him back.
As it turned out, Hamlin's Toyota bent the fender severely enough in his contact with the wall that he crashed a short while later after cutting a tire, his championship hopes done with 36 laps remaining. For his part, Elliott almost made good on his bid. He took the lead from Kenseth on the re-start after the caution for Hamlin's crash, but gave it back with 10 laps remaining due to his chassis handling tightening up under longer stints of green.
It will be another day before Elliott wins his first race in NASCAR's Cup series. Is the case closed on the Hamlin affair?
The classic response in these circumstances for the driver retaliated against is to acknowledge he got put into the wall and just move on.
At Martinsville, Hamlin had trouble shouldering the blame for not allowing any chance for a comeback by Elliott and instead pile-driving him into the wall.
At Phoenix, the Virginia driver again waffled on accepting the circumstances and shouldering his share of the responsibility. Once again, he characterized the incident in terms not many others could agree with.
"I mean, each person had their own opinion of how they do things and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances," Hamlin said. "So, I mean, you know, it's just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I'm in the garage and that's the way it is."
At best, it was another tattered ending to Hamlin's bid for a first championship. At least he will stay on at Joe Gibbs Racing. In addition to being younger by 8 1/2 years than 45-year-old Kenseth, Hamlin has an established relationship with his sponsor FedEx, one of the longest-running major deals in NASCAR.
Kenseth has been graceful since learning in August his future of driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was in doubt due to losing his seat at JGR to Erik Jones, who finished fourth at Phoenix. Kenseth's post-race celebration was no less classy, including a few tears after he first climbed from his Toyota.
"I try never to let anybody see me cry," he said in the post-race media interview, "but I'm kind of an emotional guy typically, honestly. I just try to hide it well. That's why I always sit in the back row of the drivers' meeting, back pew at church."
Kenseth is known for his dry sense of humor such as his closing comment to writers at the end of the post-race session. "I'll miss most of you," he said.
At one point, he got serious. "It's just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel," he said. "You know, to be able to have such a long season and kick it off like this, a lot of things I don't really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn't meant for me to be racing anymore at this level, you know, going forward.
"With that,' he continued, "I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it. And not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship. It's really a blessing to be able to go to work every day and work as hard as you can on it, put everything into it that you've got and finally get one here."
The playoffs move on to Homestead for the four drivers eligible to win the title: Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, who pointed his way in after a poor Phoenix effort and was aided by Hamlin's crash.
In the three previous years of the elimination format, the winning driver has also clinched the championship with the victory at Homestead. But former title contender Kyle Larson, who departed Phoenix early with yet another engine failure, can also be expected to be motivated and competitive in Homestead. And at least three other drivers -- Kenseth, Elliott and Hamlin -- each have plenty of motivation to pull off yet another playoff upset.
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