Deciphering NASCAR’s driver code – SB Nation

“The Code” is what Joey Logano apparently broke and what Matt Kenseth was enforcing when he purposefully crashed Logano Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

Like baseball’s unwritten rules, the manner of how drivers police themselves is vague, open to interruption, based who is the offending party and who is aggrieved. But unlike baseball, NASCAR drivers sometimes outright dismiss these rules as nothing more than an archaic justification to commit acts of vigilantism.

At its essence, “The Code” is a framework for how drivers should race one another. If you wreck someone out or race them too hard at inappropriate times (not conceding a position during the early portions of a race if you’re slower or continually throwing blocks) then you can expect the same in return. But it goes beyond just what happens on the track, also taking into account how drivers conduct themselves off it.

When a driver causes misfortune for another, the expectation is the driver who is perceivably in the wrong will act contrite, not be braggadocios about what occurred and reach out to smooth things over even if what they did was intentional. This is the very reason why Logano earned such contempt among his peers following what transpired at Kansas.

After Logano turned Kenseth to win the Oct. 18 race, Logano did not apologize for spinning Kenseth out and costing him a victory he needed to remain in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff. Instead, Logano said Kenseth had only himself to blame because it was he who decided to block Logano on multiple occasions — including pushing the No. 22 car into the Turn 3 wall — leaving Logano with little recourse.

“When someone does you wrong, they have an opportunity to defuse the situation by a phone call or talking to you at the race, any kind of thing like that,” Denny Hamlin said Tuesday on Fox Sports 1. “Or even through the media they can say they made a mistake. I feel like none of that happened and instead it was kind of an ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry about your luck. You’re going to have to deal with it because this is how I’m going to handle it.’ And that probably frustrated Matt.

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“On top of that, I don’t think Joey reached out to Matt to defuse the situation. So, Matt thought it was in his driver code to take care of the situation. And that’s what he did.”

And it wasn’t just Hamlin, a teammate of Kenseth’s at Joe Gibbs Racing, who noticed Logano’s lack of remorse. Others have as well, which, combined with the 25-year-old’s aggressiveness, contributed to the pervasive belief within the garage he deserved whatever retribution Kenseth meted out.

Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon specifically singled out Logano “gloating” about wrecking Kenseth at Kansas as provocation why Kenseth returned the favor two weeks later.

“(Logano) was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly the way I should’ve raced as he blocked me,” Gordon said on The Dan Patrick Show Monday. “That’s fine if you feel that way, but guess what? That’s not helping the situation and how (Kenseth’s) going to think about you and not even think twice if he gets in that scenario and in that situation.

Of course, not everyone views “The Code” with the same reverence or for that matter, even accepts it as a guiding principle.

While Logano could have demonstrated more tact after he spun Kenseth, Kenseth also violated “The Code” when he blocked Logano repeatedly. Yet, an unrepentant Kenseth defended his actions by saying he was the leader and as such, could dictate what lane he wanted even if Logano had positioned his car there.

And while he and Kenseth were racing for the win at Kansas, Kenseth was 10 laps down when he deliberately wrecked Logano, who was the race-leader, at Martinsville. It’s no wonder then that Logano’s perspective on “The Code” is vastly different compared to the viewpoints expressed by Kenseth, Hamlin and Gordon.

“I don’t think there’s an actual code,” Logano told NBC Sports’ NASCAR Talk. “I think everyone’s driver code is different. No one has ever sat down with anyone and said this is the code. I think everyone uses common sense and that’s what the driver code is.”

That NASCAR has radically altered how it crowns its champion only adds to the puzzlement of how a driver should behave behind the wheel and behind the scenes.

With the Chase now a knockout format and the significance of winning greater because a victory ensures automatic transfer to the next playoff round, a more calculating, coldblooded ruthlessness has emerged as the pervasive mentality. A philosophy further reinforced when NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France called Loganos’ bump-and-win move at Kansas “quintessential NASCAR.”

“It’s a no holds barred, wild, wild west,” Hamlin said on Sunday. “Sure, when people crown the statement that a driver’s doing what he’s got to do and they became okay with that statement, you’re just opening up Pandora’s box — everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It’s a bad statement, it’s an ugly statement.

“The structure in which we have around us is not very strong as far as an authority figure saying, ‘No, you cannot do that anymore.’ It’s just tough for us because this is what’s been created. I love Brian France, but when he says that drivers are doing what they have to do, it seems like he’s promoting this type of racing so that’s tough to crown a true champion when things go like this.”

But two days later when France attempted to establish some standards of what’s permissible and what’s not by suspending Kenseth two races, drivers resisted the infringement on their self-policing methodology. Most notably, Hamlin, who seemingly contradicted the comments he made post-race at Martinsville.

“Any race car driver that’s been doing this long enough understands what the driver code is, and I feel like the driver code that’s been established since racing has ever begun 100 years ago, that driver code is more compromised now than ever,” Hamlin said following Kenseth’s suspension on FS1. “And NASCAR said in years past, and they said even this year, that they like the drivers to police themselves.

“Matt was policing himself and he was policing the driver code.”

Except this raises the question: Can there really be a “code” if not everyone involved understands exactly what it entails?


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