Saturday, August 13, 2022

NASCAR Crash Course: Pocono DQs elevate Chase Elliott, cloud Denny Hamlin payback

Chase Elliott is so red hot these days he can win a race without leading a single lap.

That’s exactly what happened Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Elliott gifted the win almost two hours after the race had already ended. The top-2 finishers, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, were disqualified from the M&Ms Fan Appreciation 400 pending appeal due to illegal modifications on the front fascia of the race car.

“There really was no reason,” said NASCAR Cup Series Managing Director Brad Moran, “Why there was some material that was somewhere it shouldn’t have been, and that does basically come down to a DQ.”

Just like that, Pocono storylines got turned on their heads in what amounts to a 10-point playoff swing. Hamlin had just completed one of his best races, pulling a 180 from an early spin to best teammate Kyle Busch and earn a record-setting seventh Cup win at this track.

“Today was definitely a team thing,” Hamlin said of what appeared to be the winning moves. “Chris Gabehart (crew chief) just made some great strategy calls to make up the positions that I lost when I spun out. Wow, just a great team effort.”

That appeared to launch Hamlin into the number two playoff seed despite having the fewest regular season points (21st) of any postseason contender. Now? It’s Elliott earning an edge on the field, his fourth victory (pending appeal) giving him 11 more playoff points than anyone else and allowing his hometown Dawsonville Pool Room down in Georgia to have a little fun.

It was a picture-perfect weekend for Elliott, 2 for 2 after a Saturday night victory in the SRX season finale. But where does this leave NASCAR and Joe Gibbs Racing after the first Cup victory disqualification in the sport’s modern era?

Rules are rules. Problem is, just like any other sport, the more officiating gets involved, the more there’s subjectivity — which infuriates a fan base. NASCAR’s initial explanation has been limited since they want Joe Gibbs Racing to have the benefit of an unbiased appeals process.

But how will fans feel after leaving the race seeing one guy finish first, then finding out hours later he cheated in order to get the win? And exactly how and what was wrong can’t be dumbed down to a full sentence or shown by officials on replay like, say, an NFL holding penalty call?

It’s a risky moment in NASCAR’s new NextGen policies that come down hard on any alterations to the racecar. We’ve already seen Brad Keselowski incur a debilitating 100-point penalty earlier this season for illegally modifying a single-source supplied part.

“We don’t want to be here talking about this,” added Moran. “We just saw a great race… But the teams and the owners and everybody is well aware that this new car was going to be kept with some pretty tight tolerances… the rules have tightened up, and everyone has to kind of abide by our new rules.”

We’ll see if those edicts survive this week’s appeal.

Traffic Report

Green: Tyler Reddick — Buried deep in the headlines was Reddick jumping to second with these dual disqualifications. Richard Childress Racing badly needed some sliver of momentum to move forward after the bombshell Reddick will be leaving them for 23XI Racing in 2024. Now they have it, along with some breathing room on the cutline for a 17-winner scenario.

Yellow: Kyle Busch — The 63 laps led was Busch’s highest total since Gateway in June, up front all day at the perfect time considering his contract negotiations have dominated the news cycle . A 16th-place finish by a debuting Ty Gibbs wasn’t spectacular, the worst of all six Toyotas and a reminder how hard it’ll be to replace Busch at JGR.

But a win would have given Busch far more leverage and people are leaving talking about the DQ, not how much he means to Toyota.

Red: Ryan Blaney — Saturday afternoon, Blaney was on a high after traveling to Sharon Speedway to race his father in the SRX season finale. He got TKO’d from that race within two minutes after a six-car wreck; on Sunday, Pocono gave him a second sucker punch with a hard wreck off turn 3 into the frontstretch wall.

“You get loose off three and think you can save it,” Blaney said, “But you can’t.”

Speeding Ticket: NASCAR Safety and Kurt Busch — Busch was pulled from the No. 45 Toyota Sunday, allowing Ty Gibbs to make his Cup debut when NASCAR claimed he couldn’t get medically cleared after a Saturday qualifying accident.

Kudos to NASCAR for making a gutsy call, keeping a driver battling for a playoff spot on the sidelines after suspicion he has post-concussion syndrome. But remember all the controversy last year about whether this Next Gen car is safe enough? It’s never a good look when someone is forced to sit out a race six months in.

Oops!

Hamlin’s DQ turned the camera away from a race-deciding wreck on the restart with Ross Chastain. Hamlin had the inside line, battling Chastain for the lead before forcing the No. 1 up the track and into the outside wall.

Chastain lost it from there, ruining his day along with fellow contender Kevin Harvick.

“It was something that has been owed to me for a few months now,” Chastain said, who laughed when asked if it meant the drivers were even.

“I thought he was pretty nice about it,” added Chase Elliott of Hamlin’s retribution. “All things considered, I think he was pretty kind.”

But is that because, after incidents with Chastain at Gateway and Atlanta, among other places Hamlin simply views this contact as round one?

“What did you want me to do?” he said on the frontstretch after fans booed him exiting the race car. “What did you expect me to do? We got position on him, and he just ran out of racetrack.

“We’re just going to keep racing hard until we get the respect back from these guys. It’s not just that, we’ve been wrecked four times. Twice while leading in the last 10 months and I’m at the end of it.”

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