They say that hindsight is 20/20, but honestly, we should have all seen this coming a mile away.
No, I’m not talking about Jimmie Johnson’s win on Sunday, even though seeing his smiling face in Victory Lane has become as much a part of the Martinsville experience as green jackets at the Masters.
By sealing up his eighth career win at the tricky half-mile paperclip, Johnson now has more wins in Martinsville than any other active driver and trails only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time list.
But heading into the weekend, nobody was talking much about Johnson. Instead, all the talk centered around the havoc fixing to be unleashed shortly after the green flag fell on Sunday. Most folks — myself included — were expecting Martinsville to devolve into a full-contact spectacle filled with enough rage to rival Wrestlemania.
Instead, Johnson drove away cleanly after a late-race restart and won without incident on a relatively quiet spring day in the hills of Virginia. So what happened?
Well, in short, a funny thing happened on the way to the demolition derby: The drivers had a week off to sit around and do some thinking.
The human element is responsible for making NASCAR racing the most popular form of motorsports in this country. Fans are drawn to the drama that unfolds when human beings struggle to regulate their emotions as they meet with success and failure, good luck and bad while wrestling heavy racing machines at high speeds in the heat of competition.
Needless to say, emotions often boil over. But as we found out in Martinsville, the human element cuts both ways.
For the past decade, safety innovations have allowed NASCAR drivers to bounce each other around on the racetrack like ping pong balls inside the lottery machine with very few consequences. As each year has passed without any serious injuries, the old racing code of drivers taking care of each other has slowly fallen by the wayside.
When a guy like Carl Edwards, for example, saw Michael McDowell completely destroy a car in qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway and walk away without a hitch in his step, Edwards had less hesitation when he saw an opportunity to wreck Brad Keselowski at 190 mph on a straightaway at Atlanta Motor Speedway two years later.
This has led to a rise of crashes that look like something you’d see in a video game. From Elliott Sadler’s bone-jarring wreck at Pocono in 2010 to David Reutimann’s car going into the spin cycle and off a wall in Watkins Glenn in 2011, NASCAR’s highlight reel often seems to defy physics.
But at the end of each of these wild rides, the drivers have walked away from the wreckage ready to race the next week.
There is a phrase that rings through the press box following every wreck at every NASCAR race: “(Insert driver’s name here) has been treated and released from the infield care center.” Before the SAFER barriers, the HANS device and the new Cup cars, that phrase was greeted with a sigh of relief. But for the past decade, it has increasingly met indifference, treated as a mere formality.
Then came Fontana. When Denny Hamlin’s car hit the inside wall hard enough to lift the back end of the Toyota off the ground, nobody batted an eye.
Even Joey Logano, who was involved in the wreck, didn’t give much thought to the fact that Hamlin could have possibly been hurt when he told a national television audience that Hamlin “got what he deserved.”
What Hamlin’s wreck offered everyone in the Sprint Cup garage was a reality check. Racing is still dangerous. No matter how many safety innovations the engineers dream up, the specter of serious injury and death is always lurking just one freak accident away.
It might be easy to forget sometimes, but when the other drivers saw Hamlin in Martinsville wearing a back brace and struggling to take deep breaths in the infield this past weekend, they remembered.
There were still wrecks in Martinsville, and everyone raced hard. But there seemed to be a lack of the “do unto others before they do unto you” approach to driving that defined the first five races of the season.
Most folks probably didn’t see a mellow day at Martinsville coming, but it sure makes sense in hindsight. So how long will this respectfulness last? History says not that long. The next feud is never more than one bad decision away, and in the heat of battle, reason is usually the first thing a driver jettisons out the window net.
Hamlin’s injury may have been a wake-up call, but drivers are, after all, only human.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.