The cost of aggression: NASCAR’s veterans have mixed feelings on evolving tactics

RICHMOND, Va. — Just because you can knock someone out of the way for a victory doesn’t mean you should, or does it?

Ross Chastain’s aggressive move on AJ Allmendinger to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race last Sunday at Circuit of The Americas has churned up talk regarding the line drivers are willing to cross to triumph. Chastain stood by his move, while Allmendinger had to live with it.

It seems as though the old standard, using the chrome horn to achieve a race victory, has evolved into the new standard in today’s day and age. But, according to Denny Hamlin, there’s one stark difference that pales in comparison to the philosophy of years past — the lack of consequence.

“I don’t think there is any consequences to it,” Hamlin said Saturday at Richmond Raceway. “We’ve seen you can kind of do whatever. You might be worried about getting wrecked here and there in the future, but I think it’s just become accepted. The art of passing is just something that isn’t quite used as much nowadays. The easier route is getting them out of your way as quick as possible by moving them. I’ve done it — every time I’ve done it, it has been unintentional, but I think it’s become more of an intentional move in the years lately.”

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Last year, Hamlin held the lead late in the fall race at Martinsville Speedway. A victory would have locked Hamlin into the Championship 4, but Alex Bowman moved him out of the way with seven laps remaining, sending Hamlin for a spin and a 24th-place finish. Hamlin still earned a spot to compete for the title, but it was the principle of how he felt Bowman raced him that got under his skin.

Despite preventing Bowman from a celebratory burnout after that race, to this day, Hamlin has yet to retaliate on the race track.

“I think the win at all costs, they have seen it is worth it because there really isn’t any cost,” Hamlin said. “I got spun out of the lead in two races last year, one cost us the championship. I haven’t done anything about it. So, maybe that’s a message to the competitors that you can do that, and we ain’t going to do anything.

“But, I haven’t had the opportunity, either.”

Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, recalled a recent flight with Kevin Harvick where the pair discussed how young drivers take no issue with running into each other on the race track from the start. Harvick said that mentality was even apparent while watching his son, Keelan, during his go-kart events.

Truex noted a key difference could be the way the next generation has learned to race, which contrasts with how he, Hamlin and other veterans were brought up in the motorsports world.

“I know when I was making my way through the ranks I was working, I was building my cars,” Truex said. “I didn’t want to tear the nose off of the thing because I knew I had to fix it on Monday. I had to keep the car in one piece. We had to keep our stuff – we couldn’t just go out and buy new stuff. We didn’t have the money when I was doing it. Maybe that’s it — I think it’s different.

“The field gets younger, new guys come in and what used to fly or didn’t used to fly maybe can now. I think it’s a lot different than when I started here.”

As for Harvick, a run-in with Chastain during an Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway in 2018 put Harvick’s respect for the Trackhouse Racing driver on ice at the time, calling Chastain an inexperienced driver. It was Chastain’s first Xfinity start with Chip Ganassi Racing.

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Nearly four years removed from that incident, Harvick’s tune about Chastain has changed.

“Ross is just a super aggressive driver,” Harvick said. “I think balancing that with not wrecking and putting yourself in bad spots, there’s a fine line between that. I think that’s the biggest difference. He does all the things that he needs to do but has learned not to put himself in where he totals his car or tears his car up.”

Harvick correlated Chastain’s driving style to that of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Chase Briscoe. In his rookie season last year, Briscoe made headlines while battling with Hamlin for the lead late in the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Briscoe spun Hamlin entering Turn 10 and later received a penalty for cutting the course on the same lap.

Briscoe earned his first career Cup Series victory in March at Phoenix Raceway.

“(Chastain) has the background of a hard-core racer, had to battle for everything that he’s got,” Harvick said. “The most important thing for guys like that is not to lose the desire that got them to this point. Learn how to still treat this like you don’t have a job tomorrow and still carry that same enthusiasm year after year after year. That’s the trick to being successful for a long time.”

It’s that feisty racing style of Briscoe, Chastain and others among the Cup Series’ rising stars that provides entertainment for fans in the grandstands and watching from afar.

Dylan Buell | Getty Images
Dylan Buell | Getty Images

“I think that’s important to have that flare and fire because that’s what’s going to set you aside from everybody else,” Harvick said. “Having some of that personality and that ‘I don’t give a (expletive)’ attitude about what happens and if you don’t like it, sorry. Having that edge is something that will make him popular because of the way that he races. He doesn’t have to do anything else. Just race like that and the people will gravitate toward you because it’s exciting to watch and you’re winning.”

Regardless of what side of the fence you stand on regarding what should be tolerated, Harvick believes the driver depth chart taking the sport by storm should be appreciated.

“We’re super fortunate as a sport to have a lot of really young, talented, aggressive drivers that are coming up through this deal to make it exciting,” Harvick said. “Both of those guys are one of them.”