There are three races left in the NASCAR Cup Series season, which is around the time drivers still going for the title start to get testy. It was Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano’s turn at Martinsville Speedway this weekend, in a fight that led to Hamlin being thrown to the ground in a move NASCAR will “probably” penalize.
Update, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 at 4:54 p.m. ET: NASCAR announced on Monday that the crew member who pulled Hamlin to the ground, identified as a Penske tire technician named Dave Nichols Jr., has been suspended for the next NASCAR Cup Series race “for his role in an altercation after Sunday’s First Data 500.”
The announcement said Nichols was in violation of a portion of Section 12.8 in the NASCAR rulebook, which addresses conduct of members of the sport. The announcement did not mention a fine for the altercation, but said this:
Video replays showed Nichols grabbing the back of Hamlin’s fire suit and pulling him to the ground.
Nichols was among the Team Penske team members called to the NASCAR competition hauler for a post-race consultation Sunday. The others were Travis Geisler, Penske’s NASCAR competition director, and Todd Gordon, crew chief for the No. 22 Ford.
Neither driver was called to the NASCAR hauler, the penalty announcement said.
The whole incident began on track, some of which is shown in the video below.
Hamlin and Logano, both still in NASCAR’s playoffs now that the field has been whittled from 16 drivers to eight, got into each other and traded some contact near the end of the Martinsville race. The playoff field goes from eight drivers to the final four in two races, which means drivers are rightfully mad at anything that could cost them a few precious points to get through to the final round.
As the two were ending a discussion after the race, Logano shoved Hamlin and Hamlin went after him for it, resulting in the near mosh pit that their respective crews became. Hamlin could’ve easily been on a far worse end of it than he was, as had his body not rotated while he was being pulled toward the concrete, he could’ve gone headfirst into it. Skulls into hard surfaces usually don’t go well.
Here’s a slow-motion version of what happened, which shows another one of Hamlin’s crew members grabbing his arm to slow him down before he hits the ground, for reference:
The move on Hamlin was made by a crew member in Pennzoil gear, denoting Logano’s team, who hasn’t been named by NASCAR. But of it, NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said on Sirius XM NASCAR Monday that NASCAR will “probably have to take some action to address that later today or tomorrow.”
“We know emotions are going to run high, especially at this time of the season,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t encourage it, but we know [drivers] are going to address each other after the race when they have an incident, and you saw that happen. Then, unfortunately, instead of kind of breaking up a fight, I think what we saw was an aggressive move by a crew member.”
O’Donnell said NASCAR called the team into the hauler, including Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon, and noted the difference between a crew member who isn’t involved in a fight trying to break it up and one who ends up escalating it.
Gordon also went on the XM channel, saying he was “disappointed with how all of that fell down” and took some of the ownership of not stopping Logano when he got out of the car. Gordon and O’Donnell also said the collar move on Hamlin was with the intention to deescalate the fight, even if it didn’t appear to be.
“I thought they were at a point where he could go talk, and unfortunately in the conversation, there got to be a push,” Gordon said, apologizing for how Hamlin was pulled down. “The direction that our organization has is that you separate drivers, and we don’t want to have drivers that are beating on each other.
“Unfortunately, in the situation that happened there, the separation was with too much power afterwards. He was trying to separate the drivers and did so with probably more force than he anticipated and he’s regretful of that.”
Jalopnik reached out to NASCAR to ask if there were any further updates on the situation, such as when exactly potential penalty announcements may come and if the crew member from Logano’s team had been identified. A spokesperson pointed us to the statements from O’Donnell and Gordon but did not say more, aside from confirming that any ruling on the incident would come from Section 12.8: NASCAR Member Conduct in the NASCAR rulebook.
That’s big, as it reiterates that there isn’t a specific set of rules and penalties for this kind of situation in the book. Section 12.8 is for general conduct of NASCAR “members,” or participants, and includes guidelines such as (emphasis ours):
Correct and proper conduct, both on and off the race track, is part of a Member’s responsibilities. ... Therefore, NASCAR views a Member’s conduct, both on and off the race track, which might constitute a behavioral Rules violation under this Rule Book with great importance.
NASCAR expects Members to police their own behavior, attempt to resolve disputes with other Members, and generally act as a role model representing the sport.
[F]rom time to time, a Member’s action or omission may give rise for the need for NASCAR to step in, review the matter, and if necessary take action to maintain the fairness of Competition and/or the integrity of the sport.
The rulebook section makes sure to note the difference between behavioral transgressions and technical ones, for which NASCAR often has a preset ladder structure for penalties. But behavioral punishments, the rulebook says, “do not lend themselves to a structure similar” to that due to their “individual nature” and context. Generally, NASCAR’s leaned toward focusing penalties on people who escalate physical altercations rather than trying to break them up.
When discussing a recent fight in the second-tier Xfinity Series where drivers weren’t penalized, O’Donnell said, as transcribed by Autoweek:
“In those situations, the key for us is to make sure that the crew members are not coming in and escalating things,” NASCAR’s vice president and chief racing development officer said. “If anything, we’ve just got to go back and look and make sure that’s not the case from our perspective.
“There’s a lot on the line there for the drivers and we certainly don’t want to encourage that but understand that it gets heated at times. Our thing is to make sure crew members are not getting in there and piling on a driver so to speak vs. trying to deescalate the situation.”
NASCAR has fined and suspended crew members for getting involved in fights that began with drivers in the past, as a precedent for this incident. (Although whether crew members should be considered escalating factors seems to put them on a lesser plane, giving drivers the privilege to punch each other without real fear of penalty, knowing others will swarm after a few seconds and they’ll be saved from any true fighting they might have had to do if left on their own.)
An example, via USA Today, was when Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski fought in 2014. Jeff Gordon and Keselowski weren’t penalized for it, but a handful of crew members were sidelined and fined, via the story:
NASCAR suspended three Hendrick crew members for six races for being “involved in a post-race physical altercation” and fined them each $25,000. A fourth Hendrick crew member was fined $10,000 and suspended for three races for the same offense.
Gordon crew chief Alan Gustafson and Kasey Kahne crew chief Kenny Francis were each fined $50,000 and placed on probation for six races because “the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.”
But no matter what comes of the fight, the situation brings up a bigger issue: whether there should be a verbatim ruling in the book about how any fight, between any type of competitor, will get those competitors heavily penalized. O’Donnell said NASCAR doesn’t “encourage” fighting, but it does get publicity from it, and tracks do use that publicity to sell race tickets.
Fights are a good selling point, because they’re good entertainment. That, along with drivers not necessarily having to fear penalties, does encourage them. But whether they become worth the selling factor will probably only be answered if a person’s head does get slammed into the concrete one day, since these things always do branch out past the drivers and often happen in a NASCAR infield full of road-like surfaces instead of, say, grass on a football field.
But those are questions for NASCAR to put on a pile for later, as there are more immediate ones surrounding the recent fight at Martinsville—questions such as the intention of that crew member, as brought on by Todd Gordon himself.
“I think in this case, you had a crew member who, honestly, I don’t think realized the force with which he made that move,” he said on Monday. “We’ve got some light drivers and some big crew members, and unfortunately, that’s what happens when those situations take place.”