Desperate times call for … well, you know the saying.
A fistful of drivers will find themselves debating if such desperate measures should be taken in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8 cutoff race (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and two of them — who coincidentally were involved in such a scenario in the round opener at Martinsville — pondered the subject Friday at Phoenix Raceway.
Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, whose run-in two weeks ago sparked an ethics debate among NASCAR Nation, are two of the five drivers looking to secure the fourth and final transfer spot to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. With title hopes on the line, will drivers do whatever it takes at the 1-mile Phoenix track that tends to race like a short track?
“Who knows how it’s going to turn out?” Hamlin said after placing third in opening practice. “Honestly, there’s five of us that probably feel like we need to, or there’s four of us that need to feel like we need to win to get in. … It definitely has the potential to be pretty crazy on restarts knowing that you have some agendas out there that will be a win or nothing.
“I mean, you do everything you can. I sensed how important it was in the first race of this round, much less the last race of this round. I mean, you try to do everything you can to win. There’s several different ways to do it. We’ve seen any way from guys just winning races to something like Ryan Newman did with one lap to go a few years ago. Drivers become desperate when you know that this could be your final lap contending for a championship.”
Hamlin is referring to Ryan Newman’s split-second decision to move the non-playoff-eligible No. 42 car of Kyle Larson out of the way in order to advance to Miami via points in the inaugural year (2014) of the “win-and-get-in” format.
It was arguably the first instance of a driver putting this “do-or-die” mentality to use under those rules, and Larson seemed to understand that Newman was racing for a championship, and he was not. There weren’t any major hurt feelings.
That’s not, however, what we saw between Elliott and Hamlin at Martinsville, and if it comes down to moving a fellow playoff driver, sparks could fly.
“Well, I think it depends on who is where and what the situation is and what guys are racing for what spots. I mean we have seen that here before,” said Elliott, who enters the weekend seventh in points to Hamlin’s fifth. “I think if you are in a position that it is going to help you, I think you’ve got to be pretty aggressive. I think there is definitely a line as to how far you want to push it.
“Again, the flip side of that is if you are racing for 10th, I’m not going to put myself in a bad spot to run ninth. I think it just kind of all depends on where you are and what situation you are put in and what it means to you to have that extra spot.”
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All drivers should be ready to move or get moved Sunday, because the clock’s ticking and glory is there for the taking — potentially for the most aggressive guy out there.
Then again, a win for one of these five drivers (with Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the five) could make this all a moot point. If you can’t catch a driver, you can’t bump him.
“I think it’s tough to say what the right thing to do is,” Hamlin said. “But we’ll just, throughout the next two days, try to make our cars faster and faster.
“If we can do that, then it’ll take care of itself.”