Don’t hate the player, hate the game. A ridiculous and overused cliché, but a perfectly appropriate one following last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Exactly one year ago this writer opined in a post-Martinsville column that Chase Elliott had every right to be mad but Denny Hamlin had done nothing wrong. (You might remember their dust-up).
The only difference this year is Joey Logano was not apologizing to Martin Truex Jr. – nor should he, since the No. 78 didn’t end up wrecked – after the move he made to win and secure a spot in the title race. Well, said opinion largely remains the same for both incidents. There was no good guy and bad guy; everyone did what they had to do given the playoff format.
But the fact that there are those both inside and out of the garage who continue to act as if they didn’t know what was coming brings a shade of humor to the situation. It has been four years since the elimination-style playoff format was introduced, and with it, the stipulation that a driver who wins qualifies for the post-season, and a post-season win advances a driver in the playoffs.
Such a format lends itself to the gloves being taken off. All is fair in love and competing for a championship. More often than not, playing nice goes by the wayside.
In the very first year of the format (2014) Ryan Newman ran Kyle Larson out of the groove in Turn 4 on the last lap at Phoenix Raceway for the spot he needed to advance into the Championship 4. Newman was unapologetic afterward, simply saying he didn’t “take out” Larson, but did what he needed to do.
Truex saw it first-hand last year when Elliott and Hamlin had their incident at Martinsville – an in incident that opened the door for Truex to race Kyle Busch for the win, in which Truex decided not to get physical and finished second.
Plenty of other examples beyond Hamlin and Elliott exist, including these well-documented ones:
Austin Cindric putting the bumper to Kaz Grala on the last lap at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Sept. 2017. Grala already had a win and Cindric needed one to qualify for the playoffs, making his decision easy.
Noah Gragson taking out himself and Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland at Mosport in Aug. 2018. Gragson, in the playoffs, was looking to advance out of the first round and took his shot in the final corner, which handed the win over to third-placed Justin Haley.
And now, Logano putting the bumper to Truex.
Every one of those incidents could be seen coming from a mile away – except, somehow, to those who were on the receiving end. Now, to be fair, they still have the right to be mad at not winding up in victory lane. The success of a competitor at your expense would make anyone upset. And it would be hypocritical to tear down someone for doing what you would do in the same situation.
But to be surprised that it happened? No.
“I think it depends who your favorite driver is,” Hamlin responded when asked if Logano made a fair or unfair move. “I think the 22 saw he was in a vulnerable position. They were side‑by‑side for two laps. The 22 was on the outside, that’s a position where you can’t do anything to the leader. So, it looked like to me that he conceded the spot on the white flag lap. Once I saw that he conceded the spot, followed in behind him, I knew we were in for an exciting turn three and four.
“I knew it was coming. Everyone probably saw it was coming. I just think it would have been still a cool battle if they would have just stayed side‑by‑side. I think the 22 thought he wasn’t going to win that way.”
NASCAR created these situations and drivers responded by doing what is best for them in said environment.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game. And please, don’t be surprised when that game plays out exactly as intended.
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ABOUT KELLY CRANDALL
Kelly has been on the NASCAR beat full-time since 2013, and joined RACER as chief NASCAR writer in 2017. Her work has also appeared in NASCAR.com, the NASCAR Illustrated magazine, and NBC Sports. A corporate communications graduate from Central Penn College, Crandall is a two-time George Cunningham Writer of the Year recipient from the National Motorsports Press Association.