Crash course in racetrack etiquette

It’s been 37 years since Elton John first sang “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

It might take the same amount of time before Denny Hamlin hears an apology from Joey Logano.

“I thought it was just hard racing, to be honest with you,” Logano said of the closing laps with Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago. “I felt like I just got in too hard. I just went into [the] three [turn] too hard and slid up the race track. That’s just hard racing.”

Drivers are split when it comes to the etiquette of contrition. That’s not surprising. For many, just admitting fault is an issue in itself. One of the stock lines in racing among rivals goes something like this: We’ll just agree to disagree.

In Hamlin’s case, he does not blame Logano “for the particular injury” sustained during the accident. Hamlin suffered a fractured L1 vertebra and is expected to miss the next four races. What Hamlin takes issue with is “for the wreck” itself.

“I think the injury was circumstantial,” Hamlin said. “For what happened, I think it’s just a product of wrecking on a two-mile speedway, you risk getting hurt. That’s the one thing that frustrates me the most is that listening to him say, ‘I’m sure Denny’s fine because these cars are safe.’

“That really gets me, because he’s taking for granted that no matter how hard you wreck that you’re going to be fine. That’s why people don’t wreck each other intentionally on big racetracks, because this is what can happen. In my opinion he was being very careless at the end of that race and not really caring about any repercussions.”

Hamlin is waiting for an apology that might never come. While Logano expressed remorse in the media and believes he was extending an olive branch by texting Hamlin a ‘Get Well’ message, his former teammate was expecting something more substantial.

“No, we really didn’t talk about the wreck or anything of that nature,” Hamlin said. “From him, it was a ‘Hey, hope you get back in the car soon.’ Not, ‘Hey, sorry I did this or sorry we got together, I made a mistake and drove into the corner …’ It wasn’t that, it was just, ‘Hope you feel better.’ My response is that why didn’t we just let things go. It was over at Bristol.”

Could the situation have been prevented if the drivers worked out their differences before the race at Fontana? We’ll never know, but the drivers have four weeks to consider the options.

Jimmie Johnson believes it’s best to talk it out. The five-time champion suggests that communication with fellow drivers can defuse a strained situation before it escalates.

“Pick up the phone and call a guy,” Johnson said. “Go find them. You don’t have to do it in front of the cameras [but] go find a guy and tell him how you feel. I think at the end of the day that is the route that I have chosen.

"I think you can be far more effective by engaging with someone. A phone call is barely personal enough, texting is not personal enough. Tweeting is definitely not personal enough. But engage.

“If you are that mad at someone, go do something about it. Instead of having a microphone and just saying you are mad, go engage. I think there certainly has been engagement in the limelight in front of the cameras — which the fans love. But there are other ways.”

Johnson took his early cues from Jeff Burton and other veterans. He remembers Burton coming up to his hauler and apologizing for the way he raced him once at Martinsville.

“I had so much respect for him that he walked through my transporter, past my guys, didn’t lie to me he said, ‘Man I just used you up. I did.’ I was like, ‘Man I don’t know how to really react at this point, but I appreciate you coming in here and telling me this.’

“It kind of explained to me or showed me how I would like to handle things, and then I have kind of taken that route.”

Throughout his career, Burton worked hard to avoid confrontations on the racetrack, so as to not have to apologize later. However, he believes it’s common courtesy to correct wrongs on the racetrack when the opportunity is right.

“When you screw up, if you’re not going to man up and admit I screwed up, then you’re never going to improve as a person, a racecar driver, as anything you do,” Burton said. “We learn by messing up. People that are hard-headed and the people that are difficult to deal with are the people that won’t look in the mirror and say I messed up, because they never do anything wrong.

“You can’t talk to somebody like that. There are times when relationships become so strained that you can’t have a logical conversation. At that point, it may be best not to have the conversation.”

Burton encountered that roadblock following an earlier run-in with Logano. While he acknowledges that Logano is talented and has been under a lot of pressure in his career, Burton believes the young racer doesn’t “handle (constructive criticism) very well.”

“He doesn’t just step back and say, ‘You know what, OK, let me listen to what you’re saying,’ ” Burton said. “ ‘I may disagree with you but let me listen.’ He tends to resist, as if, ‘I’m right, I’m right, I’m right.’

“I had an issue with him a few years ago and I encouraged him to go look at the tape. I had already looked at it, so I knew what it showed. I didn’t tell him that. The next week I asked him if he had looked at it and he said, ‘No, I don’t need to.’ That kind of attitude is not welcomed.”

Brad Keselowski falls into the ‘never having to say you’re sorry’ category. Keselowski, Logano’s teammate and current Sprint Cup champion, has endured his share of run-ins as well, most notably with Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Despite the clashes, Keselowski has persevered.

For Keselowski, most altercations on the race track are black and white. Although attempts at making amends work for some drivers, Keselowski, 29, feels that actions mean more than his words.

“You know what’s true and what’s not, what’s intentional and what’s not,” Keselowski said. “But if it makes people feel better to get a pat on the back and a shallow ‘I’m sorry,’ then more power to them. I don’t believe in saying sorry. I don’t believe in really saying ‘thank you’ that much other than certain situations.

“I believe in doing sorry and I believe in doing thank you, which is completely different. Doing thank you is whether it’s paying it forward or however you want to look at it. That’s doing a thank you, or doing sorry is making it right somewhere down the road.

“I guess I’ve seen a lot, more than I’d like to see in this sport, of people that just say ‘sorry’ or whatnot just to check the box. I don’t really think that means anything. It doesn’t to me.”

Still, with the Nos. 11 and 22 transporters of Hamlin and Logano parked side-by-side this weekend at Martinsville, Johnson says it’s the perfect opportunity to rectify the situation.

“It would be real easy to slide next door and be like, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got to bury the hatchet on this deal.’ Or drive to somebody’s house,” Johnson added. “We all live within 30 miles of one another. Or go sit at the bar and wait for him at the bar and punch him in the face, there are a lot of options.”