That’s Bristol, baby: Battling for lead, Harvick wrecks Hamlin, Earnhardt gets collected

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Kevin Harvick got the lead in Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it probably wasn’t exactly the way he wanted it to happen.

Denny Hamlin was leading the 500-lap race when Harvick attempted to get behind him on Lap 161.

Unfortunately for Hamlin, Harvick apparently misjudged how much room he had, got a bit too close and spun the No. 11 Toyota.

“I’m sorry, it was a mistake, a misjudgment,” Harvick said over his team radio.

Hamlin’s spinning Toyota then collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., who tried to squeeze by on the right side, only to have virtually the entire left side of his Chevrolet ripped open like a sardine can.

Hamlin threw his HANS device at Harvick’s car when the latter circled around the track — in the lead, no less —  two laps later. That will likely result in a fine and points penalty from NASCAR in the coming days.

Hamlin and Harvick had a similar instance in last year’s race at Bristol, where Hamlin wrecked Harvick.

“Last year he was just not paying attention,” Hamlin told ESPN during the caution. “I had a cut tire last year. He thinks he knows everything and probably thought he knew everything again. I just wish I had some car left so I could show him back.”

But then Hamlin did a surprising 180-degree reflection, actually trying to understand the error of Harvick’s way. Perhaps he was hoping a mea culpa might prompt NASCAR to lessen any potential penalty for throwing his head-and-neck restraint device.

“It’s a misjudgment,” Hamlin added about Harvick. “He’s a good driver. He knows better. He just made a mistake.”

On second thought, maybe Harvick’s action was exactly what he planned on doing in the first place. Can you say “payback”?

Or as they like to say, “It’s Bristol, baby.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Sebastian Vettel

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Sebastian Vettel

Team: Scuderia Ferrari
Car No.: 5
Races: 20
Wins: 5
Podiums (excluding wins): 8
Pole Positions: 4
Fastest Laps: 5
Points: 317
Laps Led: 286
Championship Position: 2nd

2017 was supposed to be the year Sebastian Vettel finally fulfilled his ambition of emulating Michael Schumacher by returning Ferrari to its championship-winning heyday.

Instead, it ended in disappointment and frustration – once again.

Ferrari arguably made a greater step across the change in technical regulations for 2017 than any other team, living up to its pre-season tag as favorite by winning the opening round in Australia in fashion.

Vettel and Ferrari led their respective championships following the Monaco Grand Prix as the German ended a 16-year win drought for the Prancing Horse in the principality, and even heading into the summer break, a shot at both championships was looking good.

However, cracks had started to appear. Vettel’s remarkable antics behind the safety car in Baku sparked controversy after driving into Hamilton, suggesting the tension of the title fight was beginning to take its toll on the German.

The final run of flyaways was where things really fell apart for Vettel, though. Singapore looked to be a slam-dunk win, only for a start-line crash also involving teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen to put 25 free points in Hamilton’s pocket.

Reliability woes then struck in Malaysia and Japan – two more races Vettel could realistically have won – to make it game over in the title race, with Hamilton wrapping things up in Mexico.

Vettel only finished the year 46 points back from Hamilton, proving the impact the three bad races in Asia had. Realistically, this was a title race that should have gone down to the wire in Abu Dhabi. Instead, Vettel remains a four-time champion, level with Hamilton, who had just one to his name back in 2013 when his rival secured his fourth.

Ferrari’s internal issues will come under the microscope over the off-season, and Vettel himself knows there is plenty to work on. Staying cool under pressure and not letting things boil over as in Baku is the most obvious area for improvement.

But there is reason for hope. If Ferrari can keep up with Mercedes and repeat its impressive step into 2017 through the upcoming off-season, we may well be treated to another Vettel/Hamilton scrap at the front of the field, perhaps settling once and for all who is the greatest driver of the post-Schumacher era.

Season High: A crucial win in Hungary despite battling with a broken steering column.

Season Low: Letting tensions flare in Baku and hitting Hamilton behind the safety car.