“We will put it back in the hands of the hands of the drivers and we will say, ‘Boys, have at it and have a good time.’ That's all I can say.” — NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, Jan. 21, 2010
When Robin Pemberton uttered those words during NASCAR’s annual stop during the pre-season Sprint Media Tour in Concord, N.C., little did anyone know it would become the most quoted phrase in NASCAR for 2010.
And, indeed, the boys have had at it a number of times this year, without significant penalty.
And the Infineon Raceway road course in June, it seemed like Jeff Gordon hit everything but the lottery.
David Reutimann retaliated against Kyle Busch at Kansas in October, putting him into the wall and severely hurting Busch’s chances at a good finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Then it was Kurt Busch who drove through Gordon and turned him into the frontstretch wall at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon was on the receiving end again at Texas when the normally reasonable Jeff Burton drilled him — under caution, no less.
And those are but a few of the more egregious examples of boys having at it and knowing there would be little or no consequences for their actions.
This brings us to Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Denny Hamlin leads Jimmie Johnson by 15 points and Kevin Harvick by 46. With so much on the line, could the boys be having at it with the outcome determining the championship?
Hamlin said all three drivers are already on the ragged edge as it is. “I’m not sure of the aggressive nature,” he said. “I don’t know how much more aggressive you could be without just really putting yourself at a huge risk of wrecking or getting in an incident on a restart. There’s a limit there. We can all say that we’re going to be more aggressive, but we’re really pushing it to the edge every single week. There’s not that much more to get except for possibly restarts.”
Hamlin said he wasn’t willing to wreck anyone to win, either.
“Of course, you're going to be more aggressive in situations,” he said. “But for me to say I would wreck a guy or turn a guy for a championship, I don't know how high I could hold that trophy. Hopefully I'll have many other years to do it the right way. If someone had to put the spotlight on me and say, ‘You have to do this or not,’ I'm not going to change the way I drive. I was raised in driving one way. I've always had to fix my equipment when I raced late models. I'm not going to sell out. I'll say that.”
Johnson said what happens remains to be seen.
“I'm not sure any of us can give you an answer,” he said Thursday, when asked if there was a line the drivers were willing to cross with the title on the line. “We'll go out and race and see what happens. I mean, it's tough for us to sit up here - I know you want to hear it - but for sure, if the 11 (Hamlin) is in front of me, we're coming to the line, I'm going to dump his ass. You can't say. We're not thinking about those scenarios. It's about going out and racing as hard as you can.
“Maybe I'm wrong, but from my standpoint, I haven't thought about last-lap scenarios, what do I do,” Johnson said. “I'm more concerned about, 'How can I run as fast as I can and try to outrun these guys personally?'”
As for Harvick, the third-place points man and the driver who has a reputation of having the shortest fuse of any of the three, he said there could be a little bit of having at it at the end.
“Yeah, you know, obviously you want to outrun the other team, and you want to do it as fair as you can,” said Harvick. “I think if it comes down to the end, I'll sleep fine. I'll do whatever I have to do. We’ll do whatever we have to do to win the championship. And if it winds up hurting somebody’s feelings, so be it.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.