Every year, at least two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers end up in a situation on the racetrack that causes tempers to flare. That’s part of auto racing, but this year that situation might have sparked a season-long feud between two drivers that could follow the sport for months.
Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano began the season at Daytona by trading insults through Twitter, including Hamlin sarcastically calling Logano a “genius.”
Then Hamlin wrecked Logano while both were racing in the top 10 midway through the race three weeks ago at Bristol.
Finally, the same two drivers happened to be racing for the win a week later at Fontana, and they made contact and wrecked.
Now, we’ve seen plenty of rivalries through the years. Last year Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer didn’t like each other, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have had their disagreements in the past, and even Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski had a run of incidents in 2009 and 2010.
All of those rivalries lasted for a time but then went away. Edwards and Keselowski now race respectively around each other, Gordon and Bowyer have yet to engage in more on-track fury, and Harvick and Busch haven’t had an incident in years.
But each of those rivalries was also different from the Hamlin and Logano situation. None of those drivers got hurt in the course of their battles, but Hamlin fractured his back when he hit the inside wall in the final-lap wreck at Auto Club Speedway.
Now there is real skin in the game, or vertebrae, despite how disgusting that might sound.
Hamlin got hurt, and the injuries from that wreck will certainly keep him out of several races and likely ended his chances at running for the championship this season.
Logano, on the other hand, is ninth in the points standings and has a very good shot at making the Chase this season.
Plus, both drivers have been unable to let the situation settle even nearly a week after the latest incident. Each driver had his turn on ESPN this week, and they both had pretty wide-ranging opinions on nearly every issue.
Logano said he realized he and Hamlin were going to have to battle for the win at Fontana, but he did not intentionally cause the wreck.
“If I was going to do that I would have hit him in the left-rear tire,” Hamlin said. “I hit him in the door. It’s hard racing at that point. I hate that he got hurt. I feel like the comments after the race that I made were taken way out of context. My mind wasn’t straight and I didn’t know Denny was hurt. There was no way for me to know. And it got taken way out of context.”
Logano had said in his post-race interview that Hamlin shouldn’t have wrecked him at Bristol “so that’s what he gets.”
And Hamlin took that to mean Logano wrecked him at Fontana on purpose. Hamlin also said he understands Logano probably didn’t intend for Hamlin to get hurt, but that doesn’t justify his actions.
“That is taking for granted what we do is just, that we’re superman and we can’t be hurt,” Hamlin said. “That’s why people don’t wreck each other on 200 mph racetracks, because this is what can happen.
“You’ve got to think about that as a driver. You can’t just throw caution to the wind. Because no one’s gotten killed in 10 years, it’s OK to just wreck someone at 200? It’s not OK, because I have a daughter now. I’d like to do things with her when I get older.
“Don’t take my health for granted just because you want to retaliate.”
And so it goes. Hamlin is scheduled to miss the next five races while he recovers from his injuries. Mark Martin and Brian Vickers will drive his No. 11 car in the meantime, but don’t expect the Hamlin-Logano issues to be settled by the time Hamlin gets back in the car.
Hamlin might not go right after Logano the minute he gets back in the car, but he has said repeatedly he doesn’t plan to let Logano go when the two meet again on the racetrack.
“He’s got to deal with the repercussions of that when we race each other again,” Hamlin said.
With NASCAR’s lack of penalties in this situation, these incidents have apparently not gone beyond the “boys, have at it” policies. So put together, those factors create a mixture that could make this the most intense rivalry the sport has seen in a long time.