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When NBA players get upset, they might “chest up” and engage in some shoving on the court. When there are similar hard feelings in NASCAR at 180 mph on the back straightaway, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin rely on a different form of communication.

The single-digit salute. Half a peace sign. The bird.

As disrespectful as “the finger” may be, it’s a lot safer than putting a guy into the SAFER barrier. According to Hamlin, however, that can still be arranged.

Emotions boil over in the NASCAR Cup Series

At the risk of stating the obvious, competing in motorsports is inherently dangerous. Although NASCAR has avoided fatal wrecks since the Dale Earnhardt tragedy at Daytona in 2001, accidents do happen. They can range from a single car scraping the wall at Bristol after a tire goes down to “The Big One” at Daytona or Talladega that takes out a dozen cars.

Below that comes cars swapping a little paint with no meaningful damage or perhaps letting up at an inopportune moment, forcing a line of cars behind them to come off the gas. That can be nerve-racking at 180 mph. It’s the kind of stuff that drivers sort out later, face to face and usually amicably. However, Christopher Bell ignored Kyle Larson after their incident at Watkins Glen in 2021.

In many cases, a raised middle finger during the race signals displeasure and a desire to chat afterward. A few years back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. told Jeff Gluck he runs through a bit of a mental checklist before using that signal.

“If they’re much, much younger than you, you can totally flip them off,” Earnhardt explained. “If they’re the same age as you or have run more than four or five seasons, you cannot flip them off.”

Where there’s trouble, Kyle Busch is often nearby

USA Today polled some NASCAR Cup Series drivers late last season on a variety of topics. Kyle Busch was the hands-down (and middle-finger-up) “winner” for the title of the driver with the worst road rage. Three years earlier, Ty Dillon told NBC Sports about an incident with Busch during an Xfinity Series race as Dillion ran with the leaders.

“He had to come back through the field, and I was like racing him hard because I wanted my spot, I wanted to stay third. I think he hit me a couple of times, and he went by me. And for a whole lap, he gave me the bird all the way around the track. I am driving as hard as I can, and I can’t run him down.

“He’s got the bird out the window with one hand, running away from me and … it was one of those moments like, ‘OK, I get it. I get it.’’’

Ty Dillon

Busch precipitated an incident at Darlington on May 20, 2020, that led to Elliott targeting him with a middle finger. Late in the Wednesday night event that Hamlin won when rain shortened the race, Busch tried sliding back into line without enough space to do so safely. He owned up to a mistake that took Elliott out of the race.

“We were racing there with the 11 [Hamlin], and the 9 [Elliott] had a run on him,  and I knew he was there, and I knew I needed to get in line as quickly as I could,” Busch said. “ And, in doing so, I watched him and his momentum going by me, and I tried to look up in the mirror and see where [Kevin] Harvick was and get in, and I just misjudged it. I made a mistake and clipped the nine there and spun him in the wall. I hate it for him and his guys.”

Denny Hamlin explains the NASCAR subtlety of middle fingers

Denny Hamlin waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 in 2021 | James Gilbert/Getty Images

If Busch hated what he did that night at Darlington, Elliott hated it more. Wrecked and destined for a 38th-place finish, he waited for Busch to drive past him under the caution flag and flipped the bird prominently.

“He actually had pretty good form with it,” Hamlin told Dan Patrick the next day. “He had three knuckles up. He didn’t, you know, move his hand around. He just kept it steady right there in line with the car. So that was good form, in my opinion.”

Hamlin was sympathetic toward Elliott, though not apologetic for winning. “Everyone that knows racing knows that it was an accident,” he said. “But, still, he got screwed in the process. But it worked out good for me.”

Patrick asked Hamlin about his tolerance for fellow drivers flipping him off. It sounds like he generally doesn’t have patience for such antics.


Kyle Larson Left Him Behind on the Watkins Glen Track, so Denny Hamlin Returned the Favor at the Airport

“The one thing that really does p— me off is getting it while you’re racing,” Hamlin said. “Like, you’re racing a guy and maybe bump into him, whatever, and he sticks his middle finger out of the window. You can see it [and decide] it’s time to send them.

Patrick: “What do you mean?”

Hamlin: “You gotta send him in the fence. Don’t be giving me the middle finger.”

Patrick: “What if I give you the double bird?”

Hamlin: “That means you’re in the fence because no hands are on the wheel.”

And there you have the difference between one middle finger and two, a bit of advice that applies to all driving and not just NASCAR.

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