When does a NASCAR driver give a competitor extra room on the track, and does the number of laps left in the race factor into that decision?
Is it different when there are no points on the line?
Is it different when the driver you’re battling is a teammate?
The question of track etiquette surfaced again this week in the wake of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin’s run-in during last Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were battling for the lead shortly after the start of the final 10-lap shootout when Hamlin moved high on the track, blocking Busch. Busch, with nowhere to go, slapped the outside wall.
Hamlin went on to finish fourth while Busch wound up 14th after a cut tire put him in the wall again just a few laps later.
A week after heated radio conversations – including a threat – and a sit-down with team principals Joe and J.D. Gibbs, the two drivers said they are ready to move on and put the incident behind them.
Whether it was just a racing incident or a festering feud between two highly talented drivers, the resulting fallout put the issue of racing between teammates back on the table.
Most drivers say the all-star race, a non-points event with a $1 million prize to the winner, is different than a regular Sprint Cup race and tempts drivers to race their teammates just as hard as any other competitor.
Hamlin stands by his actions, saying he cut off Busch’s advance because it was the all-star race and he thought he had a chance to win.
“Are we teammates with 10 to go in the all-star race? I said, ‘No,’” Hamlin said. “Anybody would say, ‘No you’re not teammates. You’re not racing for points. You don’t want to wreck each other.’ But I didn’t wreck him. He just didn’t let up and he probably should have.”
Busch, meanwhile, said he was surprised by Hamlin’s move and expected him to give him more room – and respect – because they are teammates.
Most drivers side with Hamlin, saying there is no code of conduct in the final 10 laps of the prestigious event.
“Certainly with 10 [laps] to go in the all-star race, I wouldn’t [race them any differently],” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. “I think in that type of event, you've got to go for it and you've got to do everything you can.”
Gordon’s had his share of on-track issues with other drivers, including teammates. Earlier this year, he and teammate Jimmie Johnson had run-ins on the track in consecutive races and Gordon said Johnson was “testing his patience.”
Gordon said Hamlin “definitely knew [Busch] was coming and was making his car wide,” while Busch appeared to be “pushing the issue a little bit where you can’t expect your teammate to give you that spot or that space there; certainly not in the all-star event.”
“But when it’s your teammate, it hurts your feelings,” Burton said. “I think that if the roles were reversed, the same thing would have happened. It’s just that when it happens with a teammate you expect more and it’s easier to get your feelings hurt.
“I think teammates get mad at each other more often than your competition does because I think the expectation is that they’re going to cut you some more slack, and when they don’t, it makes you mad. You see that at Daytona and Talladega a lot. I think immediately you’re wanting more than perhaps you’re willing to give.”
RCR teammate Kevin Harvick said he’s been in similar situations, and that it’s sometimes impossible to know what actually happened until a driver gets the chance to see replays of an incident. When that happens, it’s often best just to fess up and move on.
“I’ve been in those situations where I was wrong,” Harvick said. “You think you’re right and you wind up being mad about something … you go back and look at it and say, ‘Man, I should have just shut up.’”
A driver likely will be a bit more forgiving towards a teammate early in a race, according to Greg Biffle, but the closer it gets to the end, the less likely he will be to cut another competitor any slack.
“When you are racing a teammate there is a lot of give and take in the beginning or middle even [of a race],” the Roush Fenway Racing driver said. “When it is down to 10 [laps] to go, or three to go, then you are racing every guy the same and trying to win.”
While he doesn’t dwell on the potential repercussions, Biffle said he is aware of them.
“I still use a little bit of caution around my teammates to alleviate those Monday morning meetings that are awkward,” he said. “You still have to race hard, though, and some things are going to happen.”
Gordon said drivers shouldn’t expect too much from anyone, regardless of whether they are teammates or not, when the race is winding down and the opportunity to win is on the line. And that holds true for points races and non-points races, alike.
“I don't really think Denny Hamlin did anything wrong and I think maybe Kyle expected something that wasn't there,” Gordon said. “And I think that's just something you can't do, whether you're in a 600-mile race for points, or in a shootout."
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