Chase Elliott was less than a mile-and-a-half away from a career-defining first win at Martinsville last October. Taking the checkered flag would have qualified him for the four-driver shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway and vaulted him into the superstardom that the NASCAR industry has predicted for him for the last two-plus years.
But there was a problem. The No. 11 driven by Denny Hamlin was getting bigger and bigger in Elliott’s rear-view mirror. With two-plus laps to go, Hamlin wanted a win to punch his ticket to Miami nearly as badly as Elliott did. He put his front fender to Elliott’s back bumper as they reached the end of the straightaway. It looked, at first, like a classic bump-and-run move, one executed time after time, race after race, year after year, at Martinsville. If all went according to Hamlin’s plan, the contact would make Elliott wobble and drift up the track. Hamlin would then dart underneath him for the pass and drive off to victory, and Elliott’s crowning moment would have to wait.
But Hamlin’s move went from typical to disastrous in an instant. He hit Elliott far too hard. Elliott spun out and hit the wall, which in addition to destroying his car brought out the caution flag. On the restart that followed, Hamlin had the lead. But what goes around comes around: Kyle Busch — Hamlin’s teammate! — pulled off a far more subtle bump and run on him and drove off to victory in an utterly delicious irony that was lost in the flood of boos that fans rained down on Hamlin.
For Hamlin, it was a dizzying turn of events, and the vitriol he endured in the weeks that followed illustrated an age-old truth about NASCAR fans: They love the bump and run and cheer wildly for the hero who executes it, except for those times when they despise it and boo like crazy the SOB who did it.
The moral ambiguity of the bump and run has perplexed drivers and fans since the first time a driver knocked another out of the way for a win. Well, perplexed some of them. A handful of drivers and plenty of fans have absolute clarity on the question, and that clarity is that whatever you have to do to win, that’s what you should do. All’s fair in pursuit of a checkered flag and all its attendant glory, right?
“Life ain’t fair,” says Busch, a proud member of both sides of the bump-and-run club. Busch has both won and lost races as a result of contact with members of even his own team. “What’s fair and what’s not is irrelevant. I just think that when it comes down to the end of the race and you’re racing for a win like that and you see the white flag waving and the door kind of cracks its way open a little bit, you’ve got to put your foot in there and go get it.”
But some drivers and fans believe that intentionally hitting a guy to move him out of the way is a cheap path to Victory Lane — one they are unwilling to take. Who wants glory if you have to stoop so low to get it? If you can’t pass the leader by being faster, this line of thinking goes, then you should tip your cap to him, settle for second place and resolve to do better next time.
“I try to race a certain way, and that’s just how I race, and that’s how I raced tonight,” said Martin Truex Jr., after he finished second to Busch at Martinsville and passed up a chance to bump and run him. “There was a hole there, I got in it and thought I had a shot at beating him fair and square.”
Truex’s clear implication here is that bumping Busch would not have been fair and square. “It never crossed my mind to knock him out of the way,” he said. “That’s just not the way I do it.”
So which is it?
Is it OK to knock a guy out of the way?
Or is it cheap?
The answer is yes.
Everything that could have gone wrong for Hamlin in his bump-and-run attempt did go wrong. He didn’t get the win, and he was loudly criticized for weeks for even trying. History suggests that it isn’t over, not even after Elliott got retribution on Hamlin a few weeks later. Rusty Wallace told Athlon Sports in last year’s magazine that it took years for him to win back fans he lost when he bumped Darrell Waltrip out of the way to win the 1989 All-Star race. And Waltrip was, at that time, a villain in the sport. Elliott is a hero, so the hole Hamlin dug for himself could be even deeper than Wallace’s. And Hamlin gets zero reprieve for the fact that he fell victim to a bump and run minutes later.
If you dig into the recent history of bump and runs looking for clarity about right and wrong, you will find none. One week fans love the bump and run, the next they hate it. One week a driver seems like a clean racer, the next he’s pile-driving a guy into the fence. But this much appears to be true: Your opinion on whether the bump and run is a legit racing move depends largely on whether your driver is the one getting bumped or the one doing the bumping.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. had two nicknames — “The Man in Black” and “The Intimidator” — and he didn’t get those monikers because he raced clean. He would, as the saying goes, knock his mother into the fence for a win. In the 17 years since his death he has become beloved for that kind of racing, a symbol of the good old days and an avatar of what NASCAR has lost as it has become increasingly corporate. But when “The Intimidator in Black” was alive, a large number of drivers and fans couldn’t stand him.
Jeff Gordon built an enormous following on his clean-cut, All-American, goodie-goodie reputation … and in pursuit of a win he would have wrecked his mother, plus yours, plus his mother-in-law, plus every mom of every kid he ever signed an autograph for.
Mark Martin is a beloved elder statesman who rarely, if ever, used the chrome horn like Earnhardt and Gordon. He raced as hard as he could and as clean as he could — a rare combination. One of his acolytes, Matt Kenseth, carried Martin’s legacy forward … until two years ago, when he intentionally wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville. Kenseth was laps down, out of the championship hunt and didn’t even have Hamlin’s excuse that he was going for a win. He just flat wrecked Logano in retaliation for Logano’s nudging him at Kansas two weeks earlier. Kenseth’s move, which essentially eliminated Logano from championship contention, was so nasty that NASCAR took the unprecedented step of suspending him for two races.
And fans loved Kenseth for it because they don’t like Logano.
Hamlin’s move was innocent compared to Kenseth’s; he was going for a win that would have put him in the championship four, and yet he was treated as if he rear-ended the Pope. If the situation were reversed — if Elliott wrecked Hamlin — fans would have wanted to crown Elliott season champion by acclimation right then and there.
At Texas the week after Martinsville, Elliott told reporters not to bother asking about payback because he wasn’t going to answer. Not with words, at least. He answered the next week at Phoenix. Late in the race, he pushed Hamlin into the wall. The contact cut one of Hamlin’s tires, and he crashed out of the race. Neither one of them qualified as one of the four finalists for the season-ending race at Homestead.
“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,” Elliott said, which all but certainly was a reference to his father, Hall of Famer Bill. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it. That’s about all I have to say.”
Fans swooned. But should they have? Try to follow this line of thinking: Hamlin wrecked Elliott by accident and got pilloried for it. Elliott, out of revenge, wrecked Hamlin on purpose and was widely praised for it. That’s no way to run a life, but somehow it has become the exact way to run a NASCAR career. This is the kind of thing ethicists write dissertations about. According to this logic, two wrongs make it right. Elliott’s justification — he did it to me first — is the opposite of taking responsibility for his actions. Little children on playgrounds know that that is an unacceptable excuse for bad behavior. And yet for generations, NASCAR drivers have justified wrecking other drivers by blaming the wreck on the driver who got wrecked.
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There is a fine line between wrecking somebody and moving somebody. It’s the difference between a pitcher plunking a guy in the ribs and hitting him in the head. If Hamlin had simply moved Elliott out of the way, it’s doubtful anybody would have remembered for more than a day or two. The fact Elliott got wrecked made a huge difference.
It doesn’t matter, never has and never will, whether Hamlin wrecked Elliott on purpose. Hamlin apologized profusely and said he only meant to move Elliott, not wreck him. But even if you take Hamlin’s word for that, it opens a different question: Considering how hard he hit Elliott, if he wasn’t intending to wreck him, how hard would he have hit him if he were intending to wreck him?
There are perhaps two, and only two, bump-and-run topics everyone agrees on: The bump and run is fun to watch, and the aftermath is always ridiculously entertaining. Fans love to cheer for (and boo) that aggression, and the media love to dissect it afterward. Was the contact on purpose? Did the driver who got hit know it was coming? Will he seek revenge, and if so, when, where and how?
As the conversation about Hamlin and Elliott continued for weeks, there were calls to cut the number of races at 1.5-mile tracks and replace them with short-track races, and there was a growing buzz inside the sport about on-track drama that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
“That’s what NASCAR needs every week,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Periscope after the race. “NASCAR needs short-track racing, particularly and preferably under the lights. If that was going on more often than not in the sport, you wouldn’t have enough tickets.”
–By Matt Crossman