NASCAR likes to promote itself as a contact sport. As the sport heads to the track that has seen memorable contact between competitors the last few years, the debate will continue on how much contact is acceptable when going for the win.
With what occurred last fall at Martinsville Speedway, it might have truly changed the way drivers race the final laps on the shortest track (0.526 miles) on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit.
Martin Truex Jr. had worked for several laps in October to cleanly drive by Joey Logano, who then executed a bump-and-run in the final turn to recapture the lead and earn the win. Truex fumed, feeling he had raced Logano with much more respect only to be treated with a dirty move in return. Logano celebrated as he not only went home with the traditional Martinsville Speedway grandfather clock prize but also with a bid to the championship race as one of the four title contenders.
Three weeks later, Logano won the Cup title thanks in no small part to not having to worry about his performance in the previous two races in order to earn a spot among the final four.
Whether the results of October influence the race at Martinsville this weekend probably won’t be known until Lap 500.
“I don’t know,” Truex said. “I would say that it’s probably not going to be [the same] — there’s less of a chance that it will be like that just because it’s not a race to get into the final four.
“I would think it would be tame and normal like we’ve seen there in the past. That’s the best answer I can give you.”
The spring race still has more than a trophy on the line. NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff field consists of its regular-season champion and then 15 drivers based on the number of wins with ties broken by the points standings.
“The spring race doesn’t usually turn out quite as crazy as the fall, but I would imagine that guys would be pretty aggressive,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished second in October as Truex was virtually sideways coming to the checkered flag. “I don’t know that they would be that aggressive, but maybe.
“It depends on the players that are in it. If there is somebody that doesn’t think they are going to get another win in the course of the season and that is going to be their ticket to punch to the playoffs, then certainly you will see a move like that.”
Truex has said that he will race Logano differently than other drivers in the typical “how you race me is how I will race you” part of the driver code. But it seems that every driver has a different code, a different set of standards of what they consider ethically right or wrong.
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“The code has definitely changed,” said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “People reference the code a lot. But I think ultimately whatever code exists is between the two drivers. And that same code might not exist between Driver C and Driver D or Driver A and Driver D. It just changes all the time.”
Drivers generally fall in two camps. Some say they would wreck their mother to win a race. Others say they would race with a little more courtesy.
“I felt like Martin raced probably how I would have,” said Kyle Larson, who has taken some criticism for not using his bumper enough. “So I would have been bitter also. But then, with Joey making that move, led him to winning the championship.
“I think it’s a little different maybe earlier in the year than playoff time, but it’s short-track racing and everybody is raised a little differently.”
Drivers also tend to differentiate between a nudge when trying to make the pass vs. rougher contact that completely moves their opponent from the preferred racing groove.
“It was certainly one of those kind of moments that if he didn’t do what he did, would he have made it to Homestead? We won’t ever know,” said 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch. “Obviously, it can take those situations sometimes where you can move a guy out of the way or pile drive a guy out of the way in order to make your way into the final four.”
So what about the guy who initiated it all? Joey Logano appeared surprised at a question on whether he would see his risk vs. reward differently this weekend when compared to October.
“I see a trophy on the line,” Logano said. “A big clock that is really cool. That is what I see. I don’t see it any different from the spring to the fall.”