Needing to almost win out for a chance at his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson had every opportunity to make that happen after Tony Stewart passed him less than three laps from the finish of Sunday's crash-filled race at Martinsville Speedway.
He opted not to use a bump-and-run to win — and Stewart knew he wouldn't.
In the final three races of the Chase for the championship, many drivers in contention profess a respect for fellow drivers, and a sense that what you give, you also deserve to get.
Stewart launched into a monologue after the race about how drivers who insist on wrecking other cars should instead be placed in a boxing ring after races and allowed to settle their differences there. He added that knowing he had Johnson's respect was critical at the finish.
"Could Jimmie have hauled it off in the corner, blown the corner to try to take us down? Absolutely," he said. "He could have done that to anybody. He didn't do that to us.
"I think he knows we respect him and have that level of respect."
Johnson acknowledged thinking about it, though, but said he realized that with Stewart in better position to win the championship at this point, he was instead "minding my Ps and Qs."
"I just wanted to do the right thing and unfortunately got beat in the process," he said.
There is definitely a grey area, said points leader Carl Edwards, but the questions that bounce around in your head have more to do with who you are racing than anything else.
Even then, he said, he doesn't want to wreck someone to win.
"Right now, I can't say if we're at Homestead (the final race of the season) and it's the last lap and the guy in front of me, all I have to do is get in front of him to win the championship. I don't know that there's anybody right now that I would spin out," he said.
He was quick to add, however, that he's not on the final lap at Homestead just yet — with the championship there for the taking and months to celebrate before a driver can retaliate on the track. Edwards will take an 8-point lead over Stewart and a 21-point edge over Kevin Harvick into Texas.
"I think you can only race people based on your opinion of them and make the best decision you can," he said. "But personally, for me, I try really hard. I feel guilty if I do something that I feel is kind of wrong or outside the rules, so I try not to do that stuff. I'd rather win fair. That's just the way I am and I think that's the way most of these guys out here are."
Most, but not all — and maybe perspective has something to do with it, too.
While Edwards has the lead, Harvick has a big hill to climb in three races. Johnson, for example, had a dominant car at Martinsville, and Edwards raced in the mid-20s most of the day, giving Johnson a shot at a huge gain. Instead, with Edwards rallying last to finish ninth and Johnson hanging on for second, he gained just seven points to get within 43.
Harvick would need to gain that much in every race to catch Edwards.
"What's fair in my mind is probably not what's fair in the guys' (minds) in the first two spots," he said before gaining five points at Martinsville. "It's just a matter of doing what you have to do for your team and sometimes fair in the end doesn't win the championship."
Edwards has a hard time thinking that way, at least outside the moment.
"I don't know. I've learned the hard way. You've got to be careful about wrecking people on purpose," he said. "You never know what the outcome of that will be."
Harvick? Sounds as though he'd take his chances.
"It's one of those things where you do what you have to do to try to win the championship and you suffer the consequences later," he said.
The 18 cautions and 108 laps under a yellow flag at Martinsville were both season highs, and Chase contenders such as Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who started the race second and third in points, both got involved in late contact on the track and saw their championship hopes crushed.
Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, said it also pays to know who is around you.
"I don't want to be the determining factor that affects the championship in a major way, but we are here to win so I'm gonna do just about everything I can to win but I'm not going to take one of those guys out to do it," he said. "I think those guys, we have to be mindful of what they have going on, but they have to be mindful of the situation that they're in."
Mindful, for sure, but also ever cautious.
"You work hard all year to try to be in this position," Stewart, a two-time champion, said. "When you start the Chase off with 10 races to go, a lot can happen. There's a lot of variables that you worry about along the way. It doesn't mean were still not worried about it."
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