Denny Hamlin believes that justice will be served.
While NASCAR deduced that the March 24 incident between Hamlin and Joey Logano in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway was just a racing deal, Hamlin still believes that the accident — which left him sidelined for at least the next four races — was indeed intentional.
However, Hamlin did not take issue with NASCAR for the decision not to penalize Logano, his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He insists that racing “is a self-policing sport.”
“From this point on he has to deal with all the repercussions, the way he has raced guys these last few weeks,” Hamlin said of Logano. “That all comes back around, it always does. I remember my rookie season this veteran driver was just irking my nerves at Martinsville and eventually ran into the side of me and cut my tire down and I remember bad-mouthing him after the race and his name was Mark Martin. At that point I was like, maybe I should just change the way I drive. He knows a little more than I do.
“These guys can make your life hell if they want to. Trust me, the repercussions come from within the garage and on the racetrack, it doesn’t need to come from NASCAR.”
The 54-year-old Martin, who is subbing for Hamlin as he recovers from a fractured L1 vertebra, remembers the moment well. Despite the lesson Martin provided Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway in 2006 — which resulted in Hamlin’s worst career finish (37th) on the half-mile oval — the veteran says the then-25-year-old driver didn’t realize that the payback was from a prior incident several races earlier at Las Vegas “that got under his skin.”
Ultimately, Martin says that young drivers have to “learn from their experiences.”
“Young, less experienced drivers when they get to this level race as hard as they can, learn and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes,” Martin said. “I think that would be in general, not just to driving race cars. I think that would be the case in many sports, you learn from your experiences and you pick your battles.”
Subsequently, Hamlin and Martin discussed the situation with Martin providing the finer points of racing etiquette. Martin chuckled as he recalled Hamlin mimicking a similar reprimand to a younger generation driver, proving his point that NASCAR “always has been” a self-policing sport.
“Those early (lessons) may not be as important as some later and if the early one cost you a chance to have a finish, you’ll remember that — especially after if happens over and over again. … If a driver wants to ask questions, it’s wide open. You can answer those questions. But learning as you do things and going through it, that’s how you really, really learn. You might forget something that somebody told you, but you won’t forget, especially if you have something unfavorable happen to you — a number of times — you tend to remember that.”
Martin feels lucky that his lessons came in an era before the internet, Twitter, YouTube and other forms of social media tried driver disputes in the court of public opinion.
“Fortunately, back in the day, we got to work those things out much more quietly than we do today,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of coverage today. There’s more fans and it makes for real good TV to have the controversy. It’s good for the sport to have rivals and controversy. That’s something that’s good for the sport.
“I don’t particularly want to be in one but I certainly don’t mind watching one.”
Brian Vickers, who will fill Hamlin’s seat at Texas Motor Speedway next weekend, knows all too well what it’s like to be the sport’s whipping boy. Although he’s not reviewed the dust-up between Hamlin and Logano, his own experience of being ostracized after his run-in with Matt Kenseth in the fall 2011 race at Martinsville Speedway left him feeling like an outsider.
“There have definitely been times when it felt like the world was against me — the media, some of the other drivers,” Vickers said. “At Martinsville, when we were caught up in like three 12-car pileups, it had nothing to do with me. We were at the tail end of it. Then we came all the way back from that and were running seventh when Matt wrecked me. Then I wrecked him back. And everyone was against me. I was like, ‘Wait a second. I was the one that was wrecked.’
“It was confusing for me. It seemed like everybody was like, ‘Brian caused all these problems,’ but there were other guys that were in as many wrecks as me. It was just a crazy day at Martinsville. But to come back from that, have a good run, get wrecked and then retaliate, right, wrong or indifferent, at that moment it just seemed like the world was against me. What do you do? If they’re against you, they’re against you. It’s just a part of life I guess.”
Vickers has since righted the situation with Kenseth, who is now also under the JGR roof. But in the weeks following the Martinsville smashup, Vickers felt excluded from the driver fraternity. Even one of his best buds, Jimmie Johnson, “criticized” his actions.
“Time heals all wounds,” Vickers said. “But there was a period (of) time where it seemed like no matter what I did, it was wrong. Even if I still didn’t do it, it was still wrong. I didn’t feel (alone) on the racetrack. It was really off the track.”
After seven full seasons on the Cup tour, Vickers has raced with the same drivers long enough to understand their temperaments. Just as Logano attracted the ire of Stewart for blocking him at Fontana, Vickers experienced a similar situation with the three-time champ at Sonoma.
“Tony is a very passionate racer and can have a temper at times — the truth is we all can,” Vickers added. “Tony is typically more vocal about his, but I think that all drivers get upset in certain situations. I’ve always liked racing with Tony – the good, the bad and the ugly.
“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years and we’ve had our moments on and off the racetrack, but we’ve always worked through them and I have a lot of respect for him. I wish Joey the best of luck in the world.”
How did Vickers find redemption, particularly after his run in with the less-polarizing Kenseth?
“A lot of people were emotional after the situation," Vickers said. "In retrospect and reviewing things over time, they were like maybe, ‘It wasn’t quite how we thought it was at the moment.’ That’s kind of for all parties included — even myself. And obviously, running good always helps. I think performance does more than anything.”
Over the last year, he made the most of his part-time opportunity with Michael Waltrip Racing. While sharing the No. 55 Toyota with Martin last year, Vickers posted three top fives and five top 10s in eight starts and enjoyed the best average finish of his Cup career.
Certainly, Logano has the equipment to make his mark this season. He’s currently ninth in the points standings after a third-place finish at California. But the 22-year-old driver might have a difficult time avoiding the competition on a short, tight track such as Martinsville on Sunday.
Although Hamlin will watch from the sidelines, he doesn’t expect the tiff to be settled this weekend.
“It was what our sport was raised on, it’s what got us to the point that we’re at right now,” Hamlin said. “(But) when drivers take it upon themselves to take someone out, they know from that point on that they’ve got a huge bull’s-eye. I don’t know. He probably needs to switch sponsors with Juan Pablo for at least two months.”