Column: Hamlin ‘moment’ sets him up for contentious payback


By George Diaz - Orlando Sentinel



Brian France promised “Game 7 moments” as NASCAR re-designed its title-determining format a few times since adding a postseason in 2004.

We’ve come a long way since then, baby, including the marketing tweaks that ditched “Chase” in favor of “playoffs.”

As we assess the recent carnage from the 2017 edition of the playoffs, one wonders if France — NASCAR’s CEO and chairman — is looking for another game-changing marketing blitz.

Something like the “Bloodsport Challenge.”

Denny Hamlin took out Martinsville leader Chase Elliott with two laps left in regulation on Sunday, a move that echoes from the days of Intimidators and Kings. Still, it was unseemly and unprofessional and very uncool.

Just ask Hamlin.

“I’ve raced nearly 10,000 races since I was (seven),” Hamlin wrote on Twitter Sunday night. “(Sunday) was the first time I’ve ever spun out the leader. I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out but I’m responsible for my own car and take blame.

“Nothing I say can turn back the clock but it’s a life lesson and hope no kids out there who aspire to race think that’s the way you should do it. It’s becoming normal in our sport now and I hate that I’m now in the discussion as a guilty party but I’ll move on and hope Chase, his team and fans accept my apology.”

The mea culpa was a classy move but does not free Hamlin from the consequences of his actions. A fan in Martinsville confronted Hamlin personally, and the cyber-pushback has not been kind either.

Did I mention there will be blood?

“I’m cool with it,” Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson said from pit road after the race. “When we have his back tires jacked up going into probably (Turn) 3 at Texas, that’ll be a bigger corner, then just be good with that, too.”

Texas comes next on the race docket, followed by Phoenix. Elliott, who finished 27th after the bump-and-run, needs a victory in either of the next two races to advance to the Championship 4 in Homestead. Hamlin, in seventh place and one spot ahead of Elliott among the remaining playoff qualifiers, needs to win as well.

Which brings us back full circle to the premise of “Bloodsport Challenge.”

There is a premium on winning races, as there should be, but there are also common-sense ethical parameters in play. NASCAR officials gave everybody the “wink-wink” as well with another memorable quote marketing the playoff hype:

“Boys, have at it.”

So everybody gets what they want and deserve, even though Elliott will tell you otherwise. He’s just part of the collateral damage.

And ultimately, Hamlin might fall into that abyss.

“Denny blatantly wiping out the leader the way he did established the precedent for how he should be raced going forward,” former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven wrote in a column on ESPN.

“Every driver worth his salt will remember the circumstance and use it to his advantage late in the race if it’s required to reach the next round, or perhaps win a championship.”

NASCAR already has a perfect foil for the playoffs in Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate who won at Martinsville. Hamlin — who doesn’t have this kind of contentious history in his resume — now joins Busch in the classic villainous tag-team.

That brings us to a professional wrestling metaphor. Only nothing is staged here.

Still, if I were Hamlin, I’d watch for flying objects coming out of nowhere on the track.

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Junior’s pretzel

NASCAR always seems to find a way to say goodbye to drivers with some quirky giveaways and promotions.

It’s no surprise that Texas Motor Speedway — home of the folks who gave Jeff Gordon two ponies during his final season — have come up with a unique way to honor Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Fans will be able to take a bite out of the “JR88” pretzel this weekend. The pretzel “comes best served warm with salt and dipping sauces” and features “two four-ounce soft pretzels shaped into Earnhardt Jr.’s iconic No. 88.”

The specialty concession item only will be available at this weekend’s AAA Texas 500, will be served in a specially branded “JR88” box and include bacon-beer cheese and spicy brown mustard for dipping.

All together now: Yummy.

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Alonso at Daytona

Fernando Alonso, a two-time Formula 1 champion, recently announced that he will compete in the 56th Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 27-28, 2018. Alonso will co-drive a Ligier JS P217 for United Autosports in his first start at Daytona.

“I have been watching some of the videos of the past races,” he said. “… This going-out again of my comfort zone and trying something really new for the first time — and learning something from the very first moment — is great for me as a driver and part of the excitement of the challenge.”

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ABOUT THE WRITER

George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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By George Diaz

Orlando Sentinel