Retaliation is delicate matter in NASCAR racing

When Denny Hamlin spun Clint Bowyer with two laps remaining in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Dover International Speedway Saturday, costing him a chance to win, Bowyer took matters into his own hands.

After a brief red-flag period to clean up the mess, Bowyer returned to the track and intentionally spun Hamlin under caution, costing him a chance to win the race as well.

Hamlin wound up 12th and Bowyer got parked by NASCAR (finishing 25th) and summoned to meet with officials for a little chat after the event.

"I wasn't pleased that my car got torn up and I didn't want to have to do that," said Bowyer, who apologized for his actions.

But Bowyer did what he had to do, executing a bit of frontier justice in what sometimes borders on being an outlaw world.

In Bowyer's mind, turnabout (literally) is fair play, or, as he said, "tit for tat."

In Bowyer's mind, Hamlin wrecked him during a crucial moment of the race, costing him a trophy, a big paycheck and likely a nice bonus for his Richard Childress Racing team.

Hamlin's move - though unintentional - cost Bowyer a chance to win the race, and according to the code, he, in turn, didn't deserve to win either.

So Bowyer did what he felt he had to do - he made sure Hamlin didn't win.

"I don't have any beef with Denny," Bowyer said. "We get along fine. ... [But] racing Late Models coming up through my career ... if I wrecked somebody on the restart like that, they (would) come back and crash me exactly like that. It was pretty much tit for tat."

And that's exactly what Bowyer should have done.

Retaliation is part of racing, and is becoming an even bigger part of it now that NASCAR has declared that it's OK and is allowing drivers to get away with it with little more than a slap on the wrist.

The question is how and when to do it? What exactly is "tit for tat" and when do you execute it.

In Hamlin's case, he got off easy, with Bowyer handling the incident the best way he could.

By retaliating immediately after the initial incident - and delivering payback in the same event and in the same fashion - Hamlin got a dose of his own medicine and the two drivers were able to walk away and quickly put the incident behind them.

Most drivers agree that that's the way retaliation and paybacks should be handled.

"You don't want to hurt anybody, but when someone takes you out of a race like that and you have no chance of finishing, and they're still going to finish, that is just the best gratification that a guy can have," third-place finisher Jamie McMurray told reporters after the race.

Though both Bowyer and Hamlin lost opportunities to win and suffered disappointing finishes, the damage was minimal. Since they aren't racing for points in the series, they basically walked away unscathed beyond their torn-up cars and hurt feelings. Their teams, however, lost valuable points in the owners championship race.

What would have been worse is if Bowyer had left the track fuming and tried to get even the following day - in the Sprint Cup race, where the stakes are much higher.

Had Bowyer spun Hamlin in the Cup race, it could have cost both of them valuable points that ultimately might have hindered their chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Both were in contention to win the Cup race at different stages of the event, and Hamlin has already won three races this year, keeping pace with defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

Retaliation in the Cup race might have cost them an important victory and valuable bonus points when the Chase field is reset.

Had the initial incident - Hamlin spinning Bowyer - occurred in the Cup race, then Bowyer would have been completely justified in returning the favor and Hamlin would have had to bear the consequences.

That's what happened to Matt Kenseth earlier this year at Martinsville Speedway. He booted Jeff Gordon out of the lead on a late restart, and Gordon immediately turned back into Kenseth, spinning him out.

Their run-in cost them both a chance to win and valuable points. It was another case of turnabout-fair play, or tit for tat.

So was the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident at Atlanta.

Keselowski had been getting under Edwards' skin for months in the Nationwide Series. When he accidentally wrecked him in the Cup race at Atlanta, Edwards had had enough, and he retaliated.

The only problem with that incident is that Keselowski's car lifted off the ground and flipped, creating a frightening crash and turning Edwards into more of a villain than he should have been.

The key to the art of retaliation is choosing the right time and place.

Edwards might have picked the right time, but the wrong place. Had he waited a couple of weeks and spun Keselowski at Bristol, a short track where the speeds aren't nearly as fast, Keselowski's car likely would not have flipped and the retaliation wouldn't have looked so bad.

When Tony Stewart angered Juan Pablo Montoya in the Cup season finale at Homestead last year, Montoya settled it right away, spinning Stewart and quickly serving his penalty.

Case closed. Incident over.

Bowyer followed the same strategy at Dover.

Though we all like to see rivalries develop and feuds brewing, the best justice in NASCAR is swift and fair.

Or, tit for tat.