AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) â Denny Hamlin thought he was the favorite to win NASCARâs championship but now finds himself in danger of not even making it to the title round.
Chase Elliott is fairly certain heâs backed himself into such a hole that his only chance at a championship is by winning Sunday in the penultimate race of the season.
Thereâs two spots left to claim in next weekâs title-deciding race and six drivers jockeying for the position and an added wrinkle headed into Sunday at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix is a brewing controversy over drivers deliberately spinning the last two weeks and altering the outcome of othersâ races.
Joey Logano spun two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway with a flat tire and brought out a race-saving caution for the reigning NASCAR champion. Many questioned if he deliberately helped himself.
Then Bubba Wallace spun at Texas last weekend and the caution ruined the race for title contender Kyle Larson. He complained after that Wallaceâs spin was intentional and NASCAR needs to act when a driver deliberately causes a caution.
âI understand itâs a judgment call, but thereâs so much data out there now that I donât think itâs as much of a judgment call as people think it might be,â Larson said Friday, adding his Chip Ganassi Racing team had pulled Wallaceâs data from last Sunday and is convinced Wallace spun to help himself.
âI know people say Joey spun out on purpose at Martinsville but I donât think he did. We looked at Bubbaâs data and you can definitely see him swerving, he turns right and then at the same time he turns left and stabs the throttle and spins out. Itâs whatever at this point.â
What should be a self-policing issue outside of NASCARâs reach has now turned into the hottest topic of this third round of the playoffs. Clint Bowyer in 2014 intentionally spun during the final regular season race to help then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the playoff field â an action that set in motion a chain of events that created one of the biggest cheating scandals in at least 20 years.
NASCAR strongly penalized teams involved and made clear that integrity and honesty was being closely monitored, more so in the playoffs.
Now the issue has come roaring back with drivers split on what NASCAR should do.
âI would say the more NASCAR is in a position to make tough calls like that, the worse it is,â said Elliott. âThatâs such a tough thing and itâs such a tough call. I donât know how you would ever get that right. I donât know what the answer is or whether someone spun out on purpose or not, I really donât know. Iâm not smart enough to tell you what the solution is either.â
The title contenders are trying to stay out of the issue while hoping it doesnât change the course of racing this weekend or in the Nov. 17 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
âItâs been getting pretty popular to have a flat tire and spin out on purpose. Itâs definitely not good, it could affect a championship race,â said Truex. âIf last week were Homestead, a lot of people would be pretty upset.â
Truex and Kevin Harvick are the only two drivers locked into the finale, while regular season champion Kyle Busch and Logano are both above the cutline before Sunday. Hamlin had a huge drop in the standings after he spun through the infield grass and Texas and dropped below the cutline.
Now heâs unsure how to save his season â heâs won five races, including the Daytona 500 â but could not be among the title contenders next week.
âNo matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure,â Hamlin said. âAs Mark Martin would say âWe just didnât score enough points.â We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time … itâs been a really good year and Iâm just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether itâs a good season or not.â
Elliott has the same mindset after crashing early at Texas to ruin his race and likely his title hopes.
âI hate that I messed up last week as bad as I did, thereâs really no excuse for that,â Elliott said. âBut weâre in the position weâre in, weâre there, itâs reality and we certainly will have to win to have a shot next week.â