Overtime restart. Rivals first and second. And instructions to “find … a … way.’’
Bristol Motor Speedway’s inaugural Cup dirt race seemed poised for a finish that could take this event — “a crazy, amazing event,” Joey Logano would call it — to another level of must-see TV. Something that would go beyond what the inaugural Charlotte Roval race became in 2018 after a final lap that saw the leaders crash, the driver running third win and a battered car chugging to the finish to advance in the playoffs.
“If you look at the history of events in the Cup Series, it seems like that (a memorable) finish is a really, really big key ingredient to a great race,” Christopher Bell said last week.
Monday’s finish fell short.
Hamlin will have to wait until next spring to get the chance in this event again.
But the finish mirrored this race, which featured rule changes throughout the weekend and race and bit of head scratching that can accompany any first-time event — especially a type of race not attempted by the Cup Series in more than half a century.
Next spring’s race still will be special — and likely a bigger deal with the expectation that there will be thousands more spectators instead of a socially-distanced crowd — but one could only imagine the promotion for it had Monday’s finish been more physical.
It’s short track racing as Hamlin said in 2019, mocking Logano after their confrontation at Martinsville in the playoffs that year. Contact is expected at the end.
That’s what Logano figured.
“I was fully prepared to get the bumper,” said Logano, who has used the bumper to win races and infuriate foes. “I figured that was going to come at some point. You have a green-white-checkered at Bristol, I don’t care if it’s dirt, concrete, you name it, there’s probably going to be contact.”
That seemed more likely with NASCAR mandating single-file restarts with about 85 laps left because double-file restarts created too much dust and too little visibility for drivers.
Hamlin, though, took a different tactic.
“I had an opportunity to choose whether I was going to make a move on the high side or the low side,” he said. “I chose high, and the track was just too slick up there at the time. Certainly he didn’t get a very good restart. I was on him entering Turn 1.”
Contact is not uncommon at Bristol. Logano and Hamlin have had run-ins before. And Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, depending on one’s interpretation, seemed to play the role of a jockey cracking a whip to his racehorse when he told Hamlin before the final restart: “You have the most aggressive guy in the business in this situation leading the race. The most aggressive one. Find … a … way.”
Hamlin took the best path he thought. It cost him a spot, and he finished third.
I asked Hamlin why he just didn’t go through Logano on the restart.
“Because I think me and (Logano) race differently,” Hamlin said. “I don’t have that mentality.”
Later, Hamlin was asked if it was any more frustrating to lose to Logano, especially since Hamlin had complained earlier of Logano cutting him off. The loss seemed to linger more as he answered this question.
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, he’s doing what he has to do to protect the lead,” Hamlin said. “I’m trying to get it from him.
“I just wasn’t aggressive enough. I should have shoved him out. When I had position on the bottom, I should have just moved up and got him in the dust, and got rid of him. I just wanted to pass him clean. I didn’t, so I didn’t win.”
On a dirt track, sometimes clean works and other times one has to get dirty.
There’s a skill in bumping a driver out of the way as opposed to wrecking them. Maybe if Hamlin makes the move, it backfires and cost him more than a third-place finish. Or maybe it works, but then he knows Logano will be coming for him.
Then again, who is not to say Logano won’t be aggressive if the roles were reversed?
“Aggressive sometimes works for me,” said Logano, who has won at at least one Cup race each of the last 10 years.
He later noted that he doesn’t think he’s any more aggressive than other drivers.
“I feel like everybody is aggressive right now,” Logano said after his 27th career Cup victory. “Honestly, when I look at what everybody is doing on the racetrack, maybe I was the first to it, so that reputation stuck with me.
“But I can promise you, I watch every one of these races back, and I’m not the only one being aggressive. You look at the 550 rules package, everyone is aggressive. Look at the restarts, it’s insane. I promise you I am not the most aggressive guy on the racetrack any more. There’s times I look at it and say Maybe I need to be more aggressive.’ The game has changed a lot.”
Monday, there was no bump in the night at Bristol, leaving one driver to rejoice and another to reflect.