Opinion: Driver fights bring buzz to NASCAR but also judgment calls from crew members, officials
After Joey Logano’s tire specialist slammed Denny Hamlin to the ground amid a scrap following the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, Hamlin popping up uninjured appears as one of the biggest moments in the playoffs.
If Hamlin had suffered an injury when he hit the Martinsville Speedway pavement, a 2019 title favorite would have seen one of his best shots for a championship come to an end.
While Hamlin didn’t suffer an injury, the debate remains on how NASCAR can balance driver-to-driver fights – which combat the perception the drivers are not as tough as those back in the rough-and-tumble days of the sport , with how much crews should get involved in a fracas.
After the Hamlin-Logano scuffle, NASCAR had a decision to make. Just a week earlier, a Cole Custer crew member pulled Tyler Reddick to the ground during their shoving match following the Xfinity Series race at Kansas. NASCAR issued no penalties.
Determining the move Sunday on Hamlin to be more aggressive and forceful, NASCAR suspended Logano tire technician Dave Nichols Jr. for one race. However, it didn’t fine Nichols, even though NASCAR’s rules give it the leeway to fine him up to $100,000.
Crew members seperate Joey Logano, far left, and Denny Hamlin, botom right, during an altercation on pit lane following the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk, Getty Images)
Losing a veteran tire specialist for a race won’t help Logano's No. 22 Team Penske crew, but a one-race suspension doesn’t rank as a huge penalty. And NASCAR seemed almost apologetic, with chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell telling SiriusXM he didn’t feel Nichols meant to slam Hamlin down hard but more just wanted to prevent Hamlin from throwing punches at Logano.
By making it a judgment call, NASCAR will continue to face decisions on crew member involvement in fights.
Three races remain in the season as the Cup Series heads this weekend to Texas Motor Speedway, the site of one of its biggest brawls in the last decade when Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski tangled in a 2014 fight that resulted in three crew members receiving six-week bans and another given three weeks off. That incident has pretty much kept crew members from throwing punches, especially at drivers.
NASCAR’s decision-making from Kansas and Martinsville indicates that a crew member can grab and yank an opposing driver away to break up a fight as long as that driver doesn’t fall hard to the ground. With that philosophy, they should hope the opponent is one of the stocky drivers (Ryan Newman comes to mind) who would be difficult to forcefully tackle.
The easy answer for NASCAR: Implement a “third man rule” – that any crew member who gets in the middle of a fight earns a suspension. But the easy route doesn’t always mean the best route, and making that rule would seem myopic when looking at the bigger picture.
NASCAR can’t afford, after it works so hard on safety aspects inside the car, to have a driver miss a race because of a black eye or a broken nose or a broken hand thanks to a fistfight. While many would love to see the drivers rumble and throw punches and have officials not break them up until they fall to the ground, the risk of injury outweighs the visuals.
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Unless NASCAR wants to triple the number of officials on pit road following a race, it doesn’t have enough officials to break up a fight. The people best equipped to break up a fight? Crew members. But how many and who?
Maybe NASCAR can say two crew members can help break up a fight, and teams can designate those crew members on their crew roster prior to the race weekend. Those two crew members can be close enough to the cars after the race. That way, race teams can put people they feel are strong enough but also can use good enough judgment not to hurt the other driver.
If anyone else gets involved, it has to be more than a one-race suspension, and NASCAR needs to consider crew chief suspensions — a crew member might think twice for seeking to fight if it would impact that crew member’s boss. NASCAR also would have to be cognizant that suspending several people from a team for the same race can turn into a safety issue for some of the smaller teams in the sport.
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage already has Hamlin-Logano posters on social media stating “Do Ya Wanna Go,” quoting part of the conversation between Logano and Hamlin postrace Martinsville. Hey, it’s promotion.
NASCAR will use the fight to promote the next race and the next race and many more, so obvious it enjoys the rage. But it still must figure out how to handle it once they do go.
WE’LL GO ON SUNDAY!#AAATexas500 | #NASCARPlayoffs
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[email protected] has had his fair share of mix ups but that’s just NASCAR racin’. See if the mix ups continue in the #AAATexas500.
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Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass.
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