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Fourth Place
Dustin Long, NBCSports.com

Denny Hamlin did not need to apologize for Chase Elliott Wreck

MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — Denny Hamlin apologized to Chase Elliott and his fans on Twitter after Sunday’s race.

It wasn’t needed.

This is what short-track racing has become, whether you like it or not. Especially with a spot in the championship round next month in Miami.

What happened Sunday night was what has happened at many short tracks throughout the country at lower levels, just that punches weren’t thrown in this case. Give Hamlin and Elliott credit for having a heated discussion on the backstretch that didn’t lead to fisticuffs.

As NASCAR Chairman Brian France has said many times, stock car racing is a contact sport. That’s what fans saw Sunday under the lights at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR didn’t issue any penalties or send anyone to the hauler after the race, thus it obviously was fine with what happened between Elliott and Brad Keselowski and then Hamlin and Elliott in the final laps.

Want to be mad? Sure you can be mad at Hamlin, but be mad at NASCAR for setting up a win-and-you’re-in playoff system. Of course that’s the same system many of you cheered when it wasn’t your driver who lost a chance to win because of a similar type finish.

Give credit to Hamlin for saying that young drivers shouldn’t race like he did in the final laps, but that’s how most drivers races now and it’s not going to change … unless NASCAR wants it to change and NASCAR saw nothing wrong with the “bull—- chaos’’ in the final laps, as Hamlin called it. 

Fact is, that’s how most everyone races. Mark Martin is gone.

Let’s be honest, an apology doesn’t change things. It doesn’t put Elliott back into the lead. It doesn’t make him less angry. It doesn’t take away the fact that he’s got a major payback to deliver to Hamlin just about any time he wants. 

“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race,’’ Elliott said. “I don’t know what his problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long. There was no reason for that. He comes over and talks to me a second ago and tells me he has somebody pushing him into Turn 3. And I thought that was funny because there was no one within two car lengths of him into Turn 3 behind myself.

“We had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him, we don’t.”

Said Hamlin: “He said I wrecked him. Obviously Ray Charles saw that. Obviously it wasn’t intentional. I wanted to move him out of the way. It was just not enough grip on the race track for him to save it. He washed (Keselowski) up the race track as well. We can play favorites if we want. Unfortunately, this is a ticket to Homestead at stake.’’

Yes, there’s a limit but until NASCAR is willing to be more aggressive in how it officiates the end of these races, then what Hamlin did was fair game.

As winner Kyle Busch said afterward: “Life ain’t fair.’’

And neither is short-track racing.

Bristol Could Signal New Era of Short Track Racing

BRISTOL, Tennessee — Drivers walked out of Bristol Motor Speedway after Monday’s Cup race smiling.

No fisticuffs. No frowns. No frustrations.

Bristol isn’t back to what it once was — a single-groove, shove-your-mother-out-of-the-way track — and may never be, but its two-lane racing left many drivers as wide-eyed as children.

The question now is did fans enjoy what they saw?

Short track racing has always had its charm with a history of beating and banging followed by driver confrontations. It was here where Jimmie Johnson, of all people, stepped out of his wrecked car and flipped the bird at Robby Gordon. This also was the track where Jeff Gordon once shoved Matt Kenseth after a race.

It’s moments like those why some people call for more short tracks in the series and a few still clamor for the return of North Wilkesboro. Of course, that will never happen.

Never. Forget about it. Stop talking about it. Move on.

Instead, is the new chapter of short track racing being set now? Might it be two-wide racing?

A different tire allowed drivers to run on the outside — the outside! — at Martinsville and pass on what has always been a one-groove track that required more fender than finesse.

Now comes Monday’s race, the second with the PJ1 VHT compound applied to the lower groove to add grip. The intent is to make the bottom groove the preferred line and force everyone there to create that bumping and banging to pass. It succeeded early before drivers began venturing up the track and worked in the top groove.

So instead of Martin Truex Jr. bumping Johnson out of the lead as they dueled with about 50 laps to go, they ran side-by-side. Johnson ran high and Truex ran low.

“It was a fun race track,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said after leading 116 laps but finishing eighth because of a late speeding penalty on pit road. “It was a blast.’’

Johnson also called the racing “fun” after earning his 82nd career Cup win.

“It is so fun to just duel it out,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “To be at a track where aero isn’t as important, you can get in there close to people, lean on them, push on them, really race hard. It was a total blast.’’

It wasn’t just those running at the front all race who had a good time.

Ty Dillon, who finished 15th, felt the same way.

“I don’t know what the fans thought, but I think all the of drivers liked to be able to have that top and bottom, where if you’re car is good on the bottom, you can pass there, and if it’s good up top, you can make moves up there,’’ he told NBC Sports. “I enjoy this type of racing.’’

One thing drivers hate is being stuck behind a slower car. That’s what leads to contact and this is a contact sport — at least that’s what NASCAR Chairman Brian France has said. For many fans, that’s what they want to see on a short track.

Still, it was hard not to be thrilled with the racing in the final 100 laps where drivers ran multiple lanes challenging for the lead or spots near the front.

“I think you’re going to have bad-ass racing at Bristol no matter what you do,’’ Joey Logano told NBC Sports as he smiled. “This is the coolest place we ever come to. It’s fun. It’s grueling. It’s tough on the drivers. I think it puts on a great race for that reason. I don’t know what you do to other tracks.’’

Former driver Tony Stewart has an idea.

“Martinsville needs to be paying attention,’’ he told NBC Sports. “This (traction compound) will work at Martinsville as well. This is proof of it. It will work. The whole thing is getting the equation right. You do too much, you make that groove faster than the other one. It’s a battle back and forth of how to keep the lanes even.’’

If a tire helps create a second groove at Martinsville and a compound does the same thing at Bristol, is there more that can be done for other tracks, including Richmond, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Dover, among others?

Possibly.

Next month, the All-Star Race will have two tire compounds. The additional compound will be a softer tire that provides more speed but wears quicker.

If this test works well, a softer compound tire could be used in future races, providing what competitors hope is a back-and-forth movement on the track, creating action for fans.

“I don’t think we would have ever ended up with an option tire if the (driver and team) councils and RTA and all this collaboration didn’t start two years ago,’’ Johnson said. “In a couple years, I don’t know exactly the timeline, in a few more years, we’re all building trust and faith in one other in understanding how this stuff plays out, we’re going to hit on some stuff that’s going to work really well, between maybe stuff that’s on the track or maybe option tires. 

“We’re getting close to creating the right racing environment.’’

Is the “right racing environment’’ side-by-side? It certainly looks like it could be headed in that direction.

Richmond Calls Raise Questions about NASCAR Officiating Heading into Playoffs

RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR told competitors before Saturday night’s race to let the event play out naturally on the track.

“We don’t want to get involved.’’

But NASCAR did in comical and confounding ways that raise questions about its officiating as the Cup playoffs begin this coming weekend.

Questionable cautions and questionable actions befuddled drivers Saturday night.

Where to start?

How about this: A wayward ambulance nearly cost Matt Kenseth a spot in the playoffs.

Just stop and ponder that.

Rarely have the words ambulance and racing produced such a ridiculous image since the time a gurney Buddy Baker was strapped to flew out of an ambulance and on to a track as cars sped by.

Had Kenseth lost his playoff spot because of an ambulance, it would have raised the specter of if NASCAR should add him to the postseason — as it added Jeff Gordon under different circumstances in 2013.

There’s more.

Saturday’s overtime finish was set up by a caution for a car 16 laps behind the leaders. A NASCAR official stated that debris came off the car, necessitating the caution.

Fine, but the bigger question is why was Derrike Cope on the track in the final laps?

His incident brought out a caution on Lap 398 of a scheduled 400-lap race. He was five laps down from the closest car, thus had no chance of gaining any positions in the regulation length.

Yet, by being out of the track — as is his right — his actions created a caution that changed the race’s outcome. Martin Truex Jr. led when the caution waved but wrecked on the last lap and finished 20th, while Kyle Larson won.

As the playoffs begin, NASCAR should order cars that are too many laps down from gaining any positions off the track in the final laps to avoid a repeat of what happened Saturday.

While some will say that every driver should be allowed to continue in case a race goes to overtime and they can gain spots there, drivers so far back should lose that right for the betterment of the race.

Also, it doesn’t do the sport — or the competitor that causes the caution in such a situation — any good.

The result was that an upset Truex was awarded a regular-season trophy after the race with the look of a person who had just had multiple root canals, found out the IRS wanted to audit him and that even his dog had turned its back on him.

Whee!

Oh yes, the race’s second caution was a quick trigger by NASCAR for what was described in the race report as smoke after Kenseth locked his brakes attempting to lap Danica Patrick.

“Smoke.” Not as in Tony Stewart but “smoke.”

Officiating affects every sport, but as the 10-race playoffs begin, the focus becomes sharper on everything NASCAR does and doesn’t do.

Since criticism for a debris caution late in the Michigan race in June, NASCAR has called fewer debris cautions, allowing for long stretches of green-flag racing regardless of how far the leader has pulled away.