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Will Chase Elliott become NASCAR’s most popular driver after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires?

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This week’s NASCAR mailbag tackles the fallout from the incident between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, Elliott’s rising popularity, and more.

NASCAR: Alabama 500-Qualifying
Chase Elliott leans against his car during qualifying for the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, SB Nation's NASCAR reporter Jordan Bianchi answers your questions about the latest news and happenings within the sport. If you have a future mailbag question, email jordanmbianchi@gmail.com.

Why didn’t Team Penske have Joey Logano pit when he had a tire going down? Everyone could see the tire was going to blow and the last thing Brad Keselowski needed was a caution. Had Joey pitted, Brad would’ve won the race and be in the championship. Hindsight being 20/20, it seems like Penske screwed up and cost Brad in a big way.

--Alex

There was nothing to be gained by Logano staying on the track with a cut tire. Especially considering the circumstances where Keselowski was comfortably ahead late in a race where a win automatically advances him to the championship round, while Logano didn’t even qualify for the playoffs.

This is not hindsight nor Monday morning quarterbacking. It was obvious what Penske needed to do the moment Logano had contact with Kyle Busch and his left-rear tire started smoking heavily with 12 laps remaining. The last thing Keselowski needed was a caution, yet that’s exactly what occurredm and wouldn’t you know it that sequence proved to be the difference maker. On the ensuing restart, Chase Elliott got into Keselowski, who then lost several positions.

Not surprisingly, Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, apologized for the tactical gaffe with potentially serious ramifications during an interview Tuesday on Sirius NASCAR Radio. What is surprising is that Gordon didn’t realize the stakes in the moment, though in his defense things happen quickly at Martinsville with laps rapidly clicking by.

The good news for Penske is Keselowski still finished fourth, good enough to give him a 29-point cushion with two races remaining in the round, which should help ease some of the sting. But if the points gap vanishes and Keselowski doesn’t make it to the Final Four, the Penske camp will going to have a long offseason filled with many “What ifs?”

How can you say Hamlin intentionally crashed Elliott? He hit his bumper like everyone does to the driver in front of him on a short track, but this time Elliott got loose and spun. That’s short-track racing and if you don’t understand that maybe you should write about something else.

--Mark

Yes, Hamlin hit the Elliott’s bumper, a common occurrence on any short track. The difference being Hamlin hit Elliott with such force he basically jacked up the rear of the No. 24 car off the ground, and instead of backing off to give Elliott a chance to gather control, Hamlin pushed ahead. That sent Elliott spinning and into the wall.

Bumping and shoving is one thing, hitting someone so hard their car turns around is another thing altogether. And when a driver does the latter to a competitor, it absolutely is intentionally wrecking someone. Hamlin admitted as much afterward when he issued his apology on Twitter.

But while Hamlin’s actions were deliberate and he will be vilified, it doesn’t make what he did wrong. That’s the mindset NASCAR wanted to install in drivers when it rolled out this playoff format in 2014, and as intended, this has happened.

Nowadays, drivers are compelled to commit acts they might not otherwise do -- think Ryan Newman in 2014, Matt Kenseth in 2015, or Hamlin this past weekend -- because the stakes are so high. It’s created an edge where in late-race situations, everything is on the table on how far a driver will go to the point the line is blurred on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Sunday surely will not be the last time such theatrics transpire when a playoff win hangs in the balance.

Are you surprised the crowd reacted like it did to Chase getting wrecked? I knew he was liked by a lot of folks but I didn’t realize he was that popular. Is he now going to be NASCAR’s next most popular driver after Dale Jr. retires?

--Shawn

With Elliott being the son of an immensely popular former Cup Series champion and enjoying a close relationship with NASCAR’s current most popular driver, it would have been astounding had the 21-year-old not received overwhelming support in the aftermath of what happened between himself and Hamlin.

The crowd reaction to Elliott is such he routinely receives a loud ovation during driver introductions -- often second only to Dale Earnhardt Jr. With Earnhardt retiring at the end of the season, it is a good bet Elliott will soon start collecting Most Popular Driver Awards on a regular basis, much like his father did throughout his career.

Because Elliott hasn’t yet won a Cup Series race, what Martinsville did was give his supporters a platform to express their admiration — something they hadn’t been able to do beyond driver introductions, with their fervor also heightened due to the circumstances.

It is also likely some of those who may not have been on Elliott bandwagon before Sunday were won over by how he handled Hamlin taking him out. Instead of popping off and giving an unfortunate soundbite, Elliott quipped that his mom always told him to not say anything unless he had something nice to say, similar to the down-home charm his father and Earnhardt have frequently exhibited.