Craig Murto: Hamlin crossed the line

Much has been said all week about the way Denny Hamlin raced Chase Elliott at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, but one thing is clear: Denny Hamlin crossed the line.

With 10 laps to go in the 500-lap Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race on the paperclip-shaped half-mile in Martinsville, it appeared to be Brad Keselowski’s race. But as Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch battled for second, Logano suffered left-rear fender damage that resulted in a cut tire.

On the restart Keselowski put himself in a vulnerable position by choosing the outside lane. And sure enough, Elliott got a good enough restart that Keselowski never cleared him. That allowed Elliott to get underneath him and move him up the track and out of the groove.

Elliott was aggressive, but he did nothing wrong. With only a handful of laps remaining and going for the win – which would have been Elliott’s first – it’s just good, hard short-track racing to move the leading car up out of the groove. Keselowski continued to race and eventually finished fourth.

Then we had Chase Elliott on his way to his first Cup win, with Denny Hamlin on his tail. But Hamlin didn’t get inside of Elliott and move him up out of the groove; Hamlin jacked the back of Elliott’s car up three-quarters of the way down the back stretch, leaving Elliott out of control and only along for the ride as his car spun on the entry to Turn 3 and hit the wall.

Hamlin wrecked Elliott. Period. What he did crossed the line, and I guarantee you that not a single other driver in the garage area thought that Hamlin raced Elliott properly. He flat out dumped him, robbing the young racer of his first win.

In post-race interviews, Hamlin danced around the issue. But the 21-year-old Elliott handled himself with dignity and class.

As the TV post-race interviews were shown on the track’s video display and broadcast over the track’s public address system, it was telling that Hamlin was loudly booed. A five-time Martinsville winner, and a Virginia native, Hamlin was booed by his own fans in the Commonwealth.

Chase Elliott received cheers from the crowd during his interview. There is little doubt as to who is going to be voted the “most popular driver” once Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs up his helmet at the end of this season.

This will stay with Hamlin for a long time. He apologized on Twitter, perhaps after a talking to by car owner Joe Gibbs, but it’s too late. I suspect Hamlin is now the driver the fans boo every week. He might as well have shot Santa Claus out of the sky on Christmas Eve than to dump Chase Elliott as Elliott fought for his first win.

This is partly the result of the new playoff system. A win by Keselowski, Elliott or Hamlin would have locked that driver into the final four at Miami-Homestead on Nov. 19. As it turned out, Kyle Busch moved Hamlin up the track during overtime and grabbed the win, and a spot in the series final.

But Martinsville wasn’t bad for every Virginia driver. Mason Diaz, the 17-year-old racer from Manassas, made his truck series debut at Martinsville on Saturday in the Brandonbilt Motorsports truck usually driven by Brandon Brown.

It’s been a great season for Diaz. Not only is he the track champion at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park, but he also broke Colt James’ stranglehold in the Pro Late Model division there. On top of that, he was named the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series North Carolina Rookie of the Year.

And Saturday, with crew chief Adam Brenner, Diaz made national attention by qualifying in the Top 10. He was charging on the lead lap in the top 15 late in the race when he had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a cut tire, dropping him to finish 23rd.

Racing is an expensive sport. Diaz had support from Prince William Marina, Accent Imaging, Convenience Car Care, The Sign Shop and others. There is no reason why all of his sponsors shouldn’t be pleased, as he handled himself well on the track and off.

The high school student will compete in the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National, and will take his Pro Late Model to Pensacola, Fla., in December to again compete in the Snowflake 100. In 2018 he plans to race mostly in a Super Late Model. Hopefully he will continue to attract financial support, because he certainly has the talent behind the wheel to go far.