HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart could have used a referee.
The final two races of the NASCAR season were more like a throwback to the good ol’ boys who settled their feuds on the track.
Montoya and Stewart must have watched the Nationwide Series race a night earlier when Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin added another explosive edition to their long-running conflict.
“Maybe they looked at it and said, ‘It’s worth it,’” Hamlin said.
Montoya and Stewart became tangled in separate blatant acts of retaliation in the Sprint Cup finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart temporarily sent Montoya to the garage; NASCAR kept Montoya parked on pit road.
It’s a type of fiery attitude fans feel NASCAR could use to inject some life into a series where crowning Jimmie Johnson the champion has become a staid formality.
“I’m glad I was an inspiration,” Hamlin said after he won the race. “I think everyone’s got a little fight in them every now and then, especially when they get done wrong. After our performance today, it’s easy to put yesterday behind me.”
Hamlin-Keselowski and Montoya-Stewart were an unexpected heavyweight double-bill caused by frayed nerves and a “nothing to lose” mentality with the season down to the final laps.
Keselowski and Hamlin’s on-track issues deteriorated into a war of words. Montoya and Stewart skipped out without talking to the media.
“I haven’t seen all the replays and I don’t know what happened first and when,” Stewart crew chief Darian Grubb said. “They were racing each other pretty hard and both got frustrated.”
The trouble started Sunday when Montoya tagged Stewart from behind on lap 117, something the two-time Cup champ wouldn’t let slide. Stewart got his payback when he sideswiped the No. 42, slicing the right front tire of Montoya’s Chevrolet and sending the car into the wall. Montoya was forced into the garage to have the car repaired.
Perhaps that’s when Montoya, who enjoyed the best season of his three-year Cup career, plotted revenge.
Montoya returned to the track on lap 145 and quickly had another run-in with Stewart.
NASCAR warned both drivers, “enough is enough and it’s over.” Not so fast.
Montoya used his bumper to send Stewart sliding into the grass along the frontstretch. That was all NASCAR officials had to see, as they immediately black-flagged Montoya for two laps.
The race finished without another road-rage incident between the two. Stewart finished 22nd and Montoya was 38th.
All 267 laps ticked off without another flare-up between Keselowski and Hamlin. Contact between the two led to five Hamlin wrecks in the Nationwide Series dating back to last season, and Hamlin vowed revenge.
He followed through when he tapped Keselowski from behind and spun him out on lap 35, though not a serious enough hit to end his day.
Keselowski made it personal when he said Hamlin “has a lot of problems on and off the racetrack.”
Respected veteran driver Jeff Burton said the sport could do without the trash talking.
“What this sport needs is good racing, it doesn’t need running that mouth,” he said. “I think running that mouth is not what it’s all about. Good hard racing is what fans want to see. There’s a certain portion of people that want to see people yell at each other, but I think the general population is better off.”
The portion of people who want to see a stock car throwdown camped out near Stewart’s hauler. Once Stewart cooled off and came back to his hauler to shake hands with his crew, one fan yelled, “Go punch Juan Pablo!” A couple of fans were specific with the part of the anatomy where they wanted Stewart to kick Montoya.
Most drivers feel should they self-police the field in the garage and on the track.
“NASCAR does a really good job of letting us handle it,” Hamlin said. “They don’t want to get involved. But if it’s something blatant, they feel like they have to do something about it or they’ll hear repercussions from fans.”