By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Everybody’s choosing sides after Martinsville.
I’m choosing Dale Earnhardt Sr. His name came up often enough after the last-lap imbroglio between Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. that it seemed like Earnhardt, too, was out there racing.
He often took the credit, or blame, in social media for Logano’s bump-and-run. “Earnhardt did it all the time,” went these comments, “and he was a big hero.”
It’s as if NASCAR finally realized it needed more of Earnhardt’s appeal and decided to create the current playoff format: win and advance. With a trip to Homestead’s finale in the balance, Logano chose the win-at-all-cost option of moving his opponent out of the way in Turn 3, then body-slamming him at the exit of Turn 4.
Truex Jr. had the same option half a lap earlier. Instead of a clean pass, he could have carried Logano to the wall when he took the lead on the inside at Turn 2. Logano even appeared to anticipate the possibility of being ridden into the wall and out of contention as he quickly dropped behind Truex, Jr. – setting up his bump-and-run in Turn 3.
I like the bump-and-run when the trailing driver is clearly faster and the leading driver can only stay in front by blocking. I just don’t get it when the trailing driver isn’t faster, but drives deeper into the corner and uses the leading car as a brake in order to bump him out of the way.
Another thing I don’t get. Last year, Denny Hamlin wrecked Chase Elliott’s chances of winning in the same Turn 3 with an over-exuberant bump-and-run. They’re still booing Virginian Hamlin at the Virginia track as a result. (It should be pointed out, Hamlin had the faster car last year, but had been gradually running out of laps to catch leader Elliott.)
Flip the switch this year and Logano gets the accolades. Maybe it’s going to be his year. After getting dumped at the same Turn 3 at Martinsville in 2015 by Matt Kenseth in retaliation for a bump-and-run at high-speed Kansas, Logano missed the playoffs. He made an apparent winning pass for the title at Homestead in 2016, only to be wrecked by Carl Edwards’ blocking maneuver. Perhaps Logano is due.
Not according to Truex Jr., who vowed otherwise. Last year, he proved a good guy who drives cleanly can win the title – despite the win at all cost formula of the playoffs. This year, Truex Jr. doesn’t have the bonus points advantage he enjoyed last season – the first year of stage racing and associated bonus points. It will be interesting to see how he makes good on his promise that Logano will not win this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup.
First, of course, Truex Jr. has to qualify for Homestead…
What would Earnhardt think about last week’s action at Martinsville?
Earnhardt, of course, had a few similar run-ins. He put leader Darrell Waltrip into the wall at Turn 3 in Richmond on the last lap in 1986 just to teach him a lesson.
In 1995, the year Bill France, Jr. was so angry about Al Unser, Jr. outrunning the good ol’ stars of NASCAR in practice for the Daytona 500, Earnhardt dumped the Indy 500 winner on the last lap of the IROC race – and then punted him again while in mid-pack in the 500! At Bristol in 1999, Earnhardt got the red mist and overcooked his bump-and-run of leader Terry Labonte and flat out wrecked him.
Earnhardt enjoyed close quarters and didn’t mind risking contact from the drop of the green all the way to the checkers in virtually every race of his career. In an early all-star race in Charlotte, he suckered Bill Elliott into passing him on the outside, then carried him into the wall after the so-called “Pass in the Grass”. (Just for grins, Earnhardt was even known to trade paint with ordinary motorists on the highway, according to publicist Tom Roberts, while driving the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s show car to appearances.)
At the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, France, Jr. gave a rousing speech in the driver’s meeting about NASCAR needing to put its best foot forward and that nobody would remember who led the first lap. What did front row starter Earnhardt do? He nearly wrecked the field at the green by leaning on pole winner Rick Mast in Turn 1 to try to lead the first lap.
Is it any surprise Earnhardt invented side-drafting, which he called “raking”. He also loved to take the air off rear spoilers of an adversary before quickly slipping past – and daring the now trailing driver to do likewise.
You have to believe Earnhardt would have endorsed Logano’s move. Just in case there’s any doubt, it’s worthwhile to recall his last, best opportunity to win an eighth championship.
The year was 2000 and Earnhardt had won one race headed into the first Pocono event. A second victory on the season would have sustained his momentum and was about to happen. After a caution, he led 12 laps under green coming to the white flag. But in Turn 3 with the checkers in sight, Jeremy Mayfield gave Earnhardt a bump-and-run in Turn 3 – because his faster Mobil 1 Ford had caught the GM Goodwrench Chevy of Earnhardt, doing his best to block. The seven-time champion recovered quickly, but fell to fourth.
A victory would have put Earnhardt within 42 points of Labonte and kept pressure on the points leader and his Joe Gibbs Racing team – looking for their first championship versus the seven-time champion. Instead, “The Intimidator” got some of his own medicine and Earnhardt never got close after that Pocono race in the points. He did not win again until late in the season in the famed Talladega victory from deep in the pack during the closing laps, the so-called “21st to first” race.
After pulling within 45 points of Labonte in Round 18 of 34 at Pocono, Earnhardt finished second, losing the title then known as the Winston Cup by 265 points. In the season finale in Atlanta, Earnhardt clinched his runner-up spot by finishing second to Jerry Nadeau. But in post-race interviews, Earnhardt kept referring to the winner as Jeremy – as in Mayfield. It was clear he thought the turning point in his season was that bump-and-run at Pocono by the driver of the Ford owned by Michael Kranefuss.
What was Earnhardt’s response to Mayfield’s move at Pocono? He didn’t have much to say about it in the post-race interviews and did not complain or whine. That was the bedrock of Earnhardt’s approach. Any kind of moves he made, a driver was welcome to try on him. But at the pre-race driver meeting for the July race in Daytona, he pinched Mayfield’s shoulder and told him, “Paybacks are hell, boy.”
Indeed, paybacks are part of the bump-and-run game. Clean-driving Terry Labonte, for instance, refused to ever go hunting or fishing with Earnhardt again.
What will nice guy Truex, Jr.’s payback be? No doubt, a lot of fans will be pulling for him in Texas and Phoenix in hopes of seeing Truex, Jr. compete for the title versus Logano in Homestead. One suspects that Truex, Jr.’s idea of revenge, along with his Furniture Row team, would be winning the championship and necessarily bumping Logano out of it.