INDIANAPOLIS — On the whole, the racing press has better manners than the occasional disgruntled driver would have you believe.
Which is why, on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 18, Joey Logano could sit in the Homestead-Miami Speedway media center without anyone pestering him about what took place three weeks earlier, on another Sunday, this one at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Logano was the big story at Homestead because his victory there gave him the NASCAR Cup Series title. But his champion’s interview was only necessary because of his previous win, at Martinsville, so it was a bit surprising that no one in the Homestead media center seemed interested in rehashing that.
For a while, Martinsville had been all that the writers and the TV folks wanted to talk about. But covering the Cup Series these days is like coming across a multi-vehicle highway crash: You gawk, and for a while you can’t get it out of your head, but 15 miles later you’re barreling down the road again.
Martinsville was where Logano, needing a win to assure himself a final-four spot in the NASCAR playoffs — I’ve about had it with these stick ’n’ ball terms — simply took aim at leader Martin Truex’s car on the final lap and shoved it out of the way. Truex had taken the lead from Logano just a lap earlier, his pass as polite as short-track passes get. In return, Truex got mugged.
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In his victory interview at Martinsville, Logano dished up that tired cliché about doing what he had to do. Nonsense. He did what he wanted to do, and there’s a difference. He also declared that “the history of this sport and this track” had been built on such moves, although it’s difficult to recall Richard Petty, king of both the series and Martinsville, where he won 15 times, rooting anyone out of the way to get another grandfather-clock trophy.
Memo to all Cup Series drivers under 30 years of age: You can’t just repeat catch phrases and pretend it’s research.
Now, at Homestead, where Logano had outrun Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to get himself crowned champion, no one seemed keen on revisiting how he’d gotten to the dance in the first place.
The only one who addressed the point directly was Logano’s team owner, Roger Penske, who mentioned that there had “obviously (been) a lot of noise about Martinsville.” Give Roger credit, he never runs from controversy.
But he also knows how to pivot and spin; of the Homestead finish, he said, “Joey’s run there at the end with Martin, it was clean, and it was amazing,” and the word you were meant to hear loudest was “clean.” That is Penske’s way; he always backs his drivers.
So Logano got a pass, from the sport and from his boss and, in the end, from the media.
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Look, Logano is a tremendous talent and at 28 he is just coming into his own. His first few Cup Series seasons were bumpy, but today it’s hard to find a flaw in his game. Penske called Logano “a guy that delivers,” and at Homestead he rose to the occasion like only the great ones do.
Yet I kept flashing back to Martinsville, where he reminded us how the sport has changed and how any transgression can now be justified in the pursuit of one’s own gain.
Those last few words are important. Across the decades, feuding drivers have knocked the hell out of one another; Petty and Bobby Allison did it for years. But feuds aside, the accepted code was that you raced the next guy the way he raced you. What we see now is different. The current Cup Series format — win to make the playoffs, then win to advance — encourages drivers to sucker punch even those rivals they’ve not had an issue with. Selfishness rules.
We have bid farewell to something that — yes, kids — really did exist once in big-league stock car racing: the honorable runner-up finish.
I saw this coming in August of 2013; the playoff system was different then, but still rewarded victories. At Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth beat Kasey Kahne after one of those battles where you wanted to pat both guys on the back for doing everything right. Kenseth held his line under immense pressure, and Kahne tried every passing move in the book. Every move, that is, short of bouncing Kenseth off the wall.
“I tried to pass him clean,” said Kasey. “I just didn’t get it done.”
In the days that followed, Kahne was roundly chastised for not roughing up Kenseth. One headline later wondered if Kahne was “too nice” to win a championship. Things had changed.
A year later, with the checkered flag waving in a playoff race at Phoenix Int’l Raceway, Ryan Newman wasn’t about to make the same mistake Kahne had. He wasn’t going to let ethics stand in his way. Running 12th and aware that he was one position away from advancing to the final round, Newman booted Kyle Larson halfway to Tempe. It was the most outrageous pass for 11th place in the history of automobile racing.
“I don’t like racing that way,” said Newman, “but there’s a lot on the line here.”
Willie Sutton didn’t like robbing banks, either. But that’s where the money was.
Four years on, a similar larceny led directly to Logano’s championship. Sportsmanship and honor are just dusty old words.