James Hinchcliffe understands the ground rules (or lack thereof) for the last lap of a NASCAR Cup Series race.
He concedes his lack of objectivity concerning the fortunes of A.J. Allmendinger.
And he also appreciates that many were entertained by the finish of last Sunday’s race at Circuit of the Americas, where Ross Chastain knocked aside Allmendinger (and Alex Bowman, indirectly) for the first Cup Series victory of his career.
Hinchcliffe still couldn’t hold back his feelings about the ending of the COTA race (video above), which sparked an insightful, humorous and spirited debate with co-host Alexander Rossi during the latest episode of their “Off Track” podcast.
“This is going to be a very unpopular rant among certain people, but it just frustrates me so much,” said Hinchcliffe, who has become a full-time NBC Sports analyst this year after an 11-season career of six victories (and the pole position for the 2016 Indy 500 won by Rossi) in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I’ll open with being very blunt and honest and up front that I’m biased as hell because A.J. is a good friend of mine. I love him. He’s a hell of a racing driver. So I understand and accept and enjoy that it’s just known in NASCAR if you are leading on the last lap of a road course or a short oval, you will be moved. That’s just how it is. The drivers all accept it. It’s just part of the sport. OK. Cool. I can buy into that.
“Here’s why I think what happened on Sunday was just complete horse (expletive).”
Hinchcliffe provided a detailed description of the final lap, which began with Chastain in the lead.
After Chastain was moved by Allmendinger, Bowman led until Chastain exacted revenge on Allmendinger’s No. 16 Chevrolet. The contact led to Allmendinger, who was running second, cleaning out Bowman’s No. 48 Chevy and clearing a path to victory lane for Chastain’s No. 1 Camaro.
In addition to having the fastest car, Hinchcliffe believed Allmendinger was more deserving of the win because he made his move to tap Chastain in the quarter panel through the track’s slowest corner. He contrasted that with Chastain plowing through at full speed.
“(Allmendinger) hit him so lightly to get around him,” Hinchcliffe said. “So whereas A.J. nudged him wide, Chastain was pure driving on anger at that point and had no sense of what he was doing or why. To not even let off the brake, he stayed on the gas going into a corner and hit A.J. so hard. The guy in third took out first and second place. Bowled them both out of the way and won the race.”
“It was awesome,” Rossi said with a laugh.
“It’s pathetic,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s horse (expletive). (Chastain) shouldn’t have won that race. And the fact that everyone in NASCAR is like, ‘Yeah, it’s just good racing!’ It’s not. If NASCAR is willing to look people in the eye and say, ‘We are the WWE of motorsports,’ then fine.
“But if you’re going to call yourself remotely a sport, that kind of behavior is so hard to wrap my head around.”
Rossi said he could respect his former Andretti Autosport teammate’s view but also could understand the ethos of NASCAR road racing, which seems less than elegantly suited to a 20-turn, 3.41-mile layout that was built for Formula One.
“That entire race looked like such a clown show with the fact there are no track limits,” Rossi said. “It already looks like amateur racing to a viewer. It looks like a free for all. It doesn’t look like there are any rules.
“Was it pure motorsports? Maybe not. Is plate racing pure motorsports? (NASCAR is) an entertainment entity. They have embraced that 100 percent.”
“It’s worth it,” Hinchcliffe said. “Their ratings are better than ours. I get that.”
Rossi also noted Chastain had a case for retaliation after Allmendinger made the first move to bump him out of the lead.
“One hundred percent,” Hinchcliffe said. “And if he moved A.J., fine. But he moved A.J. so hard, it took out the car in front of him. There’s got to be a line at some point.
“Because if the guy in fourth can just not brake for the hairpin … Bowman only didn’t crash because there’s no track limits, and he went 40 feet off the track, and it still happened to be paved there. In many other corners, that would have been a crash. At some point, driver safety has got to be taken in consideration. The corner they came through is the fastest corner on the track maybe apart from the first esses.”
But did Hinchcliffe find it entertaining and exciting? “Yes and no. I was too annoyed to be excited.”
Would he have felt differently if the guy who got taken out and finished 33rd hadn’t been his friend?
“I still wouldn’t like the fact the guy in third ends up taking out two cars,” Hinchcliffe said. “That’s the biggest issue for me is (Chastain) fired (Allmendigner) off so hard, he just bowled everyone out of the way.”
RETWEET to congratulate @RossChastain on his first win in the Cup Series!
WHAT. A. FINISH.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) March 27, 2022
“But you had no issue with (Austin) Cindric putting his teammate (Ryan Blaney) into the wall at 200 (mph) plus in front of a pack of 30 cars for the win at Daytona,” Rossi said, referencing the last lap of NASCAR’s season opener. “I’m just wondering where you find the difference. If it’s just because (Chastain) was in behind and not in front.”
Hinchcliffe said Chastain would have been better off yielding to Allmendinger and then making his move instead of resorting to what he labeled as uncalculating desperation.
“Give him (Turn) 15, let him go by and then hit him in (Turn) 20,” Hinchcliffe said. “He tried to defend it, A.J. got him, and (Chastain) was mad he got got. Here’s the thing: He wasn’t being clever anymore. What A.J. did was clever; he did what you’re supposed to do.”
You can listen to the full podcast by clicking here or watch the video of the last lap below.