First, the rules changed, and then the drivers changed to reflect the era in which they race. If that’s ultimately a good thing will be left for fans to decide.
To win the Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday, Ross Chastain responded to a bump-and-run from AJ Allmendinger with a spin-to-win. On one hand, Allmendinger opened the door for retaliation when he couldn’t drive away following the initial contact. On the other, the response was more head-for-an-eye than eye-for-an-eye.
Allmendinger moved Chastain from first to second.
Chastain moved Allmendinger from first to 33rd.
Watching the race broadcast back the next day, Denny Hamlin found the finish to be reflective of the times and just how increasingly cutthroat racing for wins have become at the highest level of the sport.
"We’ve seen you can kind of do whatever," Hamlin says of the end of races, especially on short tracks and road courses. "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 nowadays.
"The easier route is getting them out of your way as quick as possible by moving them. I’ve done it, but every time I’ve done it, it has been unintentional. But I think it’s becoming more of an intentional move lately."
In the moments afterward, Chastain said that wasn’t how he drew the finish up in his head, but that he was staring at his first Cup Series win and just couldn’t let Allmendinger get away. Everything happens so fast in the heat of the moment and it was a three-way battle for the win through the final corners.
He has since talked it over with Allmendinger, his former Xfinity Series teammate at Kaulig Racing, and they’ve seemingly closed the door on the incident.
Ryan Blaney felt like Chastain received undue criticism throughout the discourse of the past week.
"He got moved first," Blaney said. "Ross moved him back and (Bowman) was an innocent bystander. I thought it was fair game last week ... especially from someone looking for their first win."
Blaney says the playoff format has a lot to do with it, and Bowman agreed.
"I think there’s some new guys in the series that are extremely aggressive," Bowman said. "Like, everyone knows how aggressive Ross is at all times. AJ is an aggressive driver, too.
"I don’t necessarily think things have changed as much as Denny thinks, but I think if there is a reason and you have to put your finger on it, it would be the playoff format. It’s about how much winning matters and sometimes you can overcome those guys hating you in exchange for the trophy."
Martin Truex Jr. has been racing at the highest levels for two decades now and agreed with Hamlin that there has been a shift over the past five to seven years. Maybe it’s the win to advance playoff format, or a regular season that encourages winning over consistency, but Truex also believes young short track drivers are being taught reckless habits in Late Models and it has made its way into the national touring level.
"I think it’s part of the way kids come up racing," Truex said. "It’s funny I flew with (Kevin) Harvick a few weeks ago and we had a conversation. He goes and watches his kid go race go-karts and it’s crazy. They all go out there and drive through each other from lap one of practice. It’s just a normal occurrence. Everybody comes up through racing a certain way. I learned a certain way. Denny (Hamlin) learned a certain way. Kids now-a-days maybe it’s different."
Truex came from an era that predated rental cars and driver development programs. It shaped his ethics as a teenager.
"When I was making my way through the ranks, I was working on and building my own cars," Truex said. "I didn’t want to tear the nose off of the thing because I knew I'd have to fix it on Monday. I had to keep the car in one piece. We couldn’t just go out and buy new stuff. We didn’t have the money when I was doing it."
Hamlin chimed in and said, 'me too,' in the media center during this exchange.
"Maybe that’s it," Truex continued. "I just think it’s different. You see racing, you see short track racing, it’s every race there. They race for the win. It’s exciting because they are knocking the hell out each other. That’s what everybody wants to see these days."
Truex made air quotes with his fingers with that last line.
"There is a lot of things from different angles that’s different in all of those things," Truex added. "It’s different and it’s made its way here. That’s the way it goes. The field gets younger, new guys come in and what used to fly or didn’t used to fly maybe can now. But I do think it's a lot different than when I started."
Hamlin said that winning is too valuable and there are generally no consequences to wrecking someone else ... and that it might be on him.
"We've seen that with win at all costs, the cost is worth it," Hamlin said. "There really is no cost. There is no cost to them. There's not enough drivers out there ... and I'm guilty of it too ... I got spun out of the lead in two races last year and one cost us the regular season championship."
He's referencing the wild finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course where Chase Briscoe turned him on the penultimate lap of a green-white-checkered finish.
Hamlin had already locked himself into the championship race last year and was leading at Martinsville when Alex Bowman moved him out of the way to win the race. Bowman said the contact was unintentional. Certainly, Hamlin previously found himself in a similar position at Martinsville with Chase Elliott in 2017, too.
But ultimately, Hamlin says the cutthroat nature of the finishes of modern races might be a reflection of how drivers respond to perceived misdeeds.
"I haven't done anything about, and maybe that's a message to the competition, 'he ain't going to do anything about it.' But I haven't had the opportunity yet."
Kevin Harvick had a very public run-in with Chastain in the Xfinity Series in 2018 at Darlington but also sees a lot of himself in the younger driver.
"Having some of that personality and that I don’t give a sh*t 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 he races," Harvick said. "He doesn't have to do anything else because people will gravitate to him because it's exciting to watch."
All told, Harvick believes the young talent in NASCAR right now is making the sport must-see TV.
"We're fortunate in this sport to have a lot of young talented and aggressive drivers, coming up through this deal to make it exciting," Harvick said. "Both (Chastain and Chase Briscoe) are some of them."