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Intentional cautions take spotlight in NASCAR playoffs

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin thought he was the favorite to win NASCAR’s championship but now finds himself in danger of not even making it to the title round.

Chase Elliott is fairly certain he’s backed himself into such a hole that his only chance at a championship is by winning Sunday in the penultimate race of the season.

There’s two spots left to claim in next week’s title-deciding race and six drivers jockeying for the position and an added wrinkle headed into Sunday at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix is a brewing controversy over drivers deliberately spinning the last two weeks and altering the outcome of others’ races.

Joey Logano spun two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway with a flat tire and brought out a race-saving caution for the reigning NASCAR champion. Many questioned if he deliberately helped himself.

Then Bubba Wallace spun at Texas last weekend and the caution ruined the race for title contender Kyle Larson. He complained after that Wallace’s spin was intentional and NASCAR needs to act when a driver deliberately causes a caution.

“I understand it’s a judgment call, but there’s so much data out there now that I don’t think it’s as much of a judgment call as people think it might be,” Larson said Friday, adding his Chip Ganassi Racing team had pulled Wallace’s data from last Sunday and is convinced Wallace spun to help himself.

“I know people say Joey spun out on purpose at Martinsville but I don’t think he did. We looked at Bubba’s data and you can definitely see him swerving, he turns right and then at the same time he turns left and stabs the throttle and spins out. It’s whatever at this point.”

What should be a self-policing issue outside of NASCAR’s reach has now turned into the hottest topic of this third round of the playoffs. Clint Bowyer in 2014 intentionally spun during the final regular season race to help then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the playoff field — an action that set in motion a chain of events that created one of the biggest cheating scandals in at least 20 years.

NASCAR strongly penalized teams involved and made clear that integrity and honesty was being closely monitored, more so in the playoffs.

Now the issue has come roaring back with drivers split on what NASCAR should do.

“I would say the more NASCAR is in a position to make tough calls like that, the worse it is,” said Elliott. “That’s such a tough thing and it’s such a tough call. I don’t know how you would ever get that right. I don’t know what the answer is or whether someone spun out on purpose or not, I really don’t know. I’m not smart enough to tell you what the solution is either.”

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