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Just Win Baby? Not In The Chase Playoffs

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 24 2016
Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing was left on his own in some very danger territory on Sunday at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing was left on his own in some very danger territory on Sunday at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Put a microphone or notebook in front of professional race car drivers and ask them about anything remotely close to strategy and nine times out of 10 you get a face full of cliches about how winning is the one and only strategy.

sprint-logo-08Then on the tenth of the 10 times you ask, you get the truth. You get the answer that is not only the most transparent but also the most sensical.

Sprint Cup team owner Joe Gibbs came forth with that answer after Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega. He admitted that his strategy for three of his four drivers was simply to cruise – to put as much distance between them and trouble and guard their position in the Chase point standings.

Gibbs says they complied.

“Yeah,” he said, “I think really guys would rather be in the situation where they feel like they’ve got to go win. I think the drivers kind of all feel that way, but at the same time it’s a playoff and you’ve got to say what is smart and so you certainly don’t want to make a big mistakes of some kind and cost your sponsor and everybody that’s wrapped into this.”

Matt Kenseth, one of the JGR cruisers, said, “You can’t afford to go up there and get wrecked and not have a chance to race for a championship, so it was just kind of the cards we were dealt and we had to play them.”

In making those statements, Gibbs and Kenseth gave a glimpse of a world behind the curtain that racing series really don’t like to highlight: The world where money, not competitive urges, rule many important on- and off-track decisions.

The three joy riders were Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kenseth. When the race at the home of The Big One began, all were in position vis a vis points where simply finishing the race would likely send them into the next round of the Chase – The Round of Eight – which begins next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Then there was the team’s fourth driver, Denny Hamlin. Because of his points position, Hamlin did not have the luxury of cruising. He had to pick up every bit of track position he could if he was going to become one of the elite eight.

Normally there is very little that teammates can do to help other teammates in racing. But Talladega is not a normal race. It’s a restrictor plate race and that means success can absolutely depend on getting help – help by way of such things as physical pushes, aero pushes and entry from slow lines into faster lines.

On Sunday at the super-fast, high-banked 2.66 Talladega monster, Hamlin was left to fend for himself as his teammates took “big picture” approaches to the the race.

Hamlin, a veteran driver who knows from whence his lucrative occupation comes and is a dutiful sponsor-thanker whenever the red light of a camera flashes on, understood the situation.

“Yeah, I knew they were,” Hamlin said when asked if he knew his teammates were going to hang back out of helping racing, “but they had to do what they had to do to get in. You can’t sacrifice those three cars to try to get the last one in. You’ve got to know you’ve got in your hand three aces. You can’t try to get the fourth and risk it, so I knew I was going to be out there alone.”

But Hamlin said he wasn’t left completely helpless as he scrambled over the final laps to pick up enough places and, hence, points to advance up the Chase ladder. He got some help from other drivers – drivers who also would be solidly into the Chase by way of either points or a victory in the previous Round of 12 races.

“There were a lot of guys that acted like teammates today to me and can’t thank enough for that,” Hamlin said. “They know who they are. I don’t want to get them in trouble with their race teams because they’re probably a different team, different manufacturer, but I thank those guys for that. The 4 (Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing) cut me a break at the tri-oval.”

Thanks in part to some of that help, Hamlin finished third – inches ahead of SHR driver Kurt Busch. That finish allowed Hamlin to tie Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon in the battle for the final berth in the Round of 12. Hamlin secured that berth by way of the tie-breaker.

So why would Harvick and other unnamed opposing-team drivers cut Hamlin a break? Are they that thoughtful and kind or is Hamlin that lovable?

Perhaps. But a more real world explanation might be a business-world explanation. A quid pro quo explanation. Just bidness.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 24 2016
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