A Boiling Point
Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin's coming together and subsequent war of words is not only bad for NASCAR, it's bad for motorsports as a whole
For those of you who need a refresher on the events that took place in the closing laps of last week's NASCAR playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, watch the video below of the lap 499 accident between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.
Video Credit: NASCAR/NBCSports
And the ensuing aftermath:
Video Credit: NASCAR/NBCSports
Whether Hamlin's bump of Elliott was an avoidable move that warranted a penalty or whether is was simply a case of "Rubbin's Racin'," is immaterial. It was an on track incident that wound up with a driver in the wall. Unfortunate, but it happens sometimes, especially in NASCAR.
But the fiasco didn't stop there. As shown in the second video, Elliott chose to vent his frustrations with Hamlin by, first, shoving him into the wall on the cool down lap, and then getting in his face after both drivers had exited their cars.
To make matters even more ridiculous, a rouge Chase Elliott fan attempted to pick a fight with Denny Hamlin as the driver walked back from his car and through the pit lane.
I know many of my European colleagues will no doubt scoff at this display and, truthfully, they have a right to. Even for a sport that prides itself on promoting rivalaries and amping up drama around every corner, Sunday night's drama-fest was nothing short of pure ridiculousness on so many levels.
And even more than that, I'll go so far as to argue it was downright dangerous.
Now, a driver exchanging words (or even blows) with another driver after a race is nothing new. Everyone has heard that stories of Mansell punching Senna after the '87 Belgian Grand Prix and Senna in return punching Eddie Irvine a few years later. In Indycar, when AJ Foyt picked up a hammer, there was a fifty/fifty chance as to whether he would hit a car or a fellow driver.
AJ Foyt taking swing at Arie Luyendyk after the 1997 Indycar race at Texas Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: Autoweek
But what is disconcerting and dangerous about Sunday night was Elliott using his car as a weapon.
Drivers will be drivers. We cannot expect these men and women who put their life on the line for our enjoyment week in and week out to simply get out of a car and shake hands with their competitors as if nothing has happened when they lose or, worse, end up in a wall.
Drivers want to win. And when they don't win they get angry. There's nothing wrong with that. Tensions flare. We get it. If an errant word or maybe even a stray punch gets thrown after a race has concluded and the drivers have exited their cars, well, you really can't blame too many people for being angry and while many will claim to be 'aghast,' there is no real lasting damage from it.
But where the true danger enters into all of this is when drivers let their anger get the better of them behind the wheel, like Elliot did Sunday. It doesn't matter that he was on the cool-down lap, Chase Elliot, in cold blood, deliberately ran into Hamlin's car and pushed him into the wall. And THAT is unacceptable in any form of the motorsport, much in the same way it was entirely unacceptable when Sebastian Vettel ran into the side of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes earlier this year in Baku.
Allowing for these outward displays of aggression by drivers while still in their cars is a recipe for disaster. When a track is live, risks cannot be taken. We have seen what happens when drivers let their emotions get the better of them too many times and, on sad occasion, we have seen the deadly consequence of what can happen when safety gives way to anger.
Just a few weeks ago we saw what can happen when a driver choses to settle his score on the track, in a similar fashion to Chase Elliot, in fact..
Video Credit: Rhonda Chalfant
That video mainly spread on the internet for laughs. And, I'll admit, I laughed at seeing a driver get tased. But what it distressing and downright terrifying is the image of a car being driven over the top of another in anger. If that car had gone mere meters to the right, we could have been having a different conversation all together, instead of laughing about a Hoosier in a helmet get tased during a figure of 8 race (which I'll be honest, just sounds like the setup to a bad joke).
Chase Elliot after his spin, before his running Hamlin into the wall during the cool down lap. Photo Credit: Steve Helber - AP
But that is the kind of thing that becomes more common place when the highest paid and most notable drivers allow themselves to give in to anger slam their cars into other drivers like Chase Elliott did Sunday.
To make matters worse, he did not appear to be the least bit repentant.
In a recent interview he said, "I'm still pretty frustrated about it, and really as the week has gone along it's given me a lot of time to think about (it)"
"I think if anything else, that'll drive you up the wall more as you think about it." He continued, "(I'm) Definitely not happy about it and I don't think a whole lot has changed."
More rhetoric that, to me, implies we may be in for more sparks come race day.
Which is fine, on some levels. Good rivalries are born out of hard times between drivers. But if and when it escalates, as it is so often want to do in NASCAR, it then turns into a bad example for drivers everywhere, one that normalizes that which every driver everywhere should attempt to avoid, an accident.
NASCAR is more prone to accident by the very nature of its racing. And to some degree, it's what many of its fans show up to see thanks to the increased safety and reduced speed of the series. But those accidents. By definition, they are unintentional consequences of racing. When collisions become a way to vent anger after it has reached a boiling point, they become some all together. They become dangerous.