My Brain on NASCAR: Hamlin-Patrick feud sweet as honey

col-cathyelliott (2) The opportunity to talk about my favorite incident of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season so far passed me by when Joey Logano won his first-ever Daytona 500 on Feb. 22.

A number of celebrated Cup Series champions – including Rusty Wallace, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski – have never won the 500, so when Logano succeeded where they have failed, it was big news indeed.

Thank Heaven for Martinsville. The historic short track always gives us something to talk about, and on March 29 “The Paperclip” came hoppin’ on down the bunny trail with an early Easter gift. At the end of the day, the two drivers earning the biggest headlines were the same little hotheads I had to pass over in February: Denny Hamlin and Danica Patrick.

Hamlin took the checkered flag and Patrick finished seventh, so everything was sunshine and rainbows after the race. They had a few kind and congratulatory public comments for one another, and probably no one would have been particularly surprised if an impromptu round or two of “Kumbaya” had broken out on pit road.

It was quite a different scene in February when, following the second Budweiser Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway, Patrick charged down pit road to accuse Hamlin of spinning her out. A similar incident during practice, also involving Hamlin, had forced Danica into a backup car, so basically the score was 2-0 in the Hamlin-Patrick matchup. Or 0-2, depending on which team you prefer.

I just love silly NASCAR fights. They are one of my very favorite things to write about, and this one was a classic.

On one side you had tiny Danica Patrick physically putting her hands on Hamlin – some reports said she grabbed him by the lapels, which was almost certainly the first time I’ve seen the word “lapels” used in any serious NASCAR coverage – and on the other side you had Denny putting his arm around her and calling her “Honey.”

Where do I even start? To borrow a line from Seinfeld, this was gold, Jerry. I actually thought Patrick showed a lot of restraint in that moment, and immediately began to wonder how Cale Yarborough would have responded had one of the Allison brothers called him “Honey” after their historic confrontation at Daytona back in 1979. That, my friends, would not have been pretty.

But time moves on and so does the racing season. Despite a marquee driver roster which includes Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and currently injured Kyle Busch in addition to Hamlin, the Martinsville victory broke a 31-race losing streak for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team is facing some stress on the personal side; it was recently disclosed that Gibbs’ son J.D. is undergoing treatment for an unspecified neurological condition.

“It’s a big win for Gibbs and Toyota. It’s been a rough year for both of us, and really myself. We’re just not used to not having success, and especially with the resources that we have,” Hamlin said after the race. “We’re excited. We’re excited about what we’ve got going on and what’s to come for us.”

Meanwhile, Stewart-Haas Racing was enjoying a hefty share of the day’s spotlight as Patrick fought her way to a seventh-place finish, tying Janet Guthrie for the most top-10s by a woman in a premier division race. You don’t see an awful lot of headlines celebrating seventh place, but it’s progress, I guess.

The punchline of the day was the fact that Patrick’s three teammates – Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick – all finished behind her. Those guys have a combined total of 103 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and five NSCS championships, but at tricky little Martinsville Speedway, Danica came out on top.

Possibly the only thing that could have made it sweeter was if she had given one (or all) of them a sympathetic hug and called them “Honey.” Martinsville is famous for hot dogs rather than desserts, but at this legendary track where anything can happen, that really would have been the icing on the cake.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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