KANSAS CITY, Kan. – If rubbing is racing, then blocking is …
Blocking is …
Well, it’s complicated.
There might be no alliterative witticism in the NASCAR vernacular to describe the practice of deliberately impeding another driver’s progress. Yet there is one truism about the maneuver.
It comes with consequences.
The sort that cost Matt Kenseth a victory at Kansas Speedway.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was seething Sunday after his No. 20 Toyota was bumped out of the lead – and a guaranteed berth in the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – by race winner Joey Logano.
The anger was understandable from Kenseth, who is having a career season with five victories and seemed on the way to a sixth after leading a race-high 153 of 269 laps. He was a few minutes from a checkered flag that would shore up a championship bid via playoff advancement after enduring a week of nerves frayed by opening the second round of the playoffs with a 42nd at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In a large plume of white tire smoke, all the elation evaporated and left Kenseth facing the unenviable prospect of a must-win at Talladega Superspeedway to keep his title chances afloat.
Any Sprint Cup star understandably would be upset by those circumstances, and Kenseth fired several razor-sharp digs while subtly vowing retribution.
Yet the ire directed at Logano was misplaced.
The golden rule of racing applies as much as in any walk of life. Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.
When Kenseth threw a backstretch block that squeezed Logano’s No. 22 Ford into a scrape with the wall at over 190 mph several laps earlier, it established the justification for payback.
As a rule of thumb in racing, you might get to throw one block – and even that ultimately might be determined by whether the driver behind you wants to risk a rear-end collision – but all bets certainly are off after that.
If you continually try to obstruct the path of a faster car and force a competitor to choose between lifting off the accelerator and lifting your rear tires off the asphalt, you increasingly create an untenable set of circumstances.
Should Kenseth have gone for the win at the risk of putting himself in the position for being roughed up? With Talladega looming, it might have seemed the smart play, but he also had refused to label Kansas a win-or-else proposition two days earlier. If he had finished second Sunday, there still might have been a chance to advance with a top five at Talladega (where he finished second last year).
Regardless, Kenseth took his shot at stopping Logano, who unquestionably had the faster car since a restart 15 laps earlier. The first block merely delayed Logano’s charge – and guaranteed there’d be no more dispensation when the opportunity arrived again to challenge for the lead on Lap 263 entering Turn 1.
“I feel like he raced me the same way,” Logano said. “I’d be surprised if he expected something different. We were just racing hard, and he’s racing for a win, I’m racing for a win. There’s a lot of aggression there, and that’s what our sport is built on. Our sport is built on stuff like that.”
The old-school argument made by a 25-year-old rising star (who is 18 years Kenseth’s junior) is intriguing because there seems a growing generational divide about the unwritten rules of racing etiquette.
This is the second straight season in which a Team Penske driver has left a champion feeling aggrieved by aggression. Last season, it was Jeff Gordon, 44, who angrily accused Brad Keselowski, 31, of needlessly causing contact while contending for the lead in the closing laps at Texas Motor Speedway.
Sunday’s incident at Kansas wasn’t entirely analogous because the cars weren’t side by side. Logano was behind Kenseth, which added the wrinkle of whether he could have completed a pass for the lead without contact.
Logano said he didn’t mean to turn Kenseth (“we both went for the same piece of real estate”), who countered that it was “absolutely, 100 percent” intentional.
In other words, it was complicated.