By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
"You hate to see anyone lose a race like that," car owner of the No. 48 Rick Hendrick said while standing in victory lane, waiting for the celebration to die down so he could congratulate his winning driver, Jimmie Johnson.
A lot of people -- starting with the man who finished second, Denny Hamlin -- probably had that sentiment Sunday at Martinsville. But Johnson wasn't one of them, of course.
The bump-and-run is an aggressive way to make a pass late in a short-track race. It is when a driver uses his bumper to root another car out of the groove. And while it often might rankle the driver who gets bumped, it is a part of what makes this sport so much fun to watch. But is it an acceptable way to make a pass, and is that actually what happened at the end of Sunday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500?
"If Denny wants to believe that I tried moving him out of the way, he can believe that, but he should watch the video and realize that I was inside of him," Jimmie Johnson said after winning his fifth Martinsville race in his last six attempts. "And I did everything I could to miss him. I climbed up on the curb and he was still coming down and the only reason we touched and the only reason he ended up in the rubber where he couldn't come back and get me was the fact that he chopped me."
Hamlin, who finished second, had a different perspective: "I didn't cut down on him. He really wasn't there until the corner. I think he made a really aggressive move to get down in there."
Both drivers are half-correct, and their perspective was skewed by their respective views from the cockpit. Johnson did have a bumper on Hamlin entering the corner and maybe about a foot of fender as well, but he was not close enough on the No. 11's doorpost to have realistically claimed the real estate. Earlier in the race, he might have backed out, but that was not an option with 15 laps to go.
For his part, Hamlin was entitled to take his arc into the corner, but with the checkered flag in sight, that move also comes with risk.
For the second consecutive week, Hamlin was the runner-up, a spot NASCAR's greatest driver, Richard Petty, once described as the first loser. Last week, Hamlin came up one spot short in the Food City 500 behind teammate Kyle Busch during a weekend when Hamlin told reporters that simply finishing in the top five was no longer acceptable to him.
"You know, it's tough to say that you've gotten used to losing, but I've gotten used to the disappointment at the end. It's not like a new thing," Hamlin said. "My hunger is still the same, for sure. I want to win races, you know, but I can't help being in the position I was in.
"Yeah, it sucks that you didn't win, but things don't always fall our way, and today they didn't. I was in a vulnerable spot. I let him get too close, and when he did get close, he took the first opportunity he could to get to us."
A little beating and banging on the short tracks and a difference of opinion about what caused the contact -- most of the time, that is all that is needed the get a good rivalry going. But Hamlin was remarkably gracious about the incident.
"That was short-track racing," Hamlin said. "I would've done the same thing to him, and if it comes back around, I will do the same. It's just the way it is. In Martinsville, you have to battle for every inch, and I was trying to protect a spot, and he was trying to get it at the end of the race. That's the way it goes."
Hamlin's acceptance of the move, however, could not be confused with resignation. He not only acknowledged he would have used the same tactic, but during those tense moments when he was skating through turns 3 and 4, he was formulating a plan.
Hamlin wanted to return the contact. "(Johnson) knew as soon as we got back straight again, he was going to have to run for his life, because he knew what was coming if I got back to him," Hamlin said. Both drivers recognize that the run half of the bump-and-run equation is the most important.
At the end of the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500, Johnson won and Hamlin lost, but the real victors were the fans who saw a fierce battle for the win.
On lap 456, Hamlin executed a perfectly timed restart to get around Johnson and then held the lead for 28 laps before the final pass. Better still, the two combatants were nose to tail during the final 50 laps.
"If I look back and use my head, maybe I don't pass him on that restart," Hamlin concluded. "Maybe I just do the same thing he did and ride behind him 'til about 10 to go and put the move on him and make sure we're going to get the win."