From time to time, even the strongest friendships are bound to feature a disagreement.
Just ask Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, who despite being good friends off-track, are clearly not in agreement about the way in which the final pass for the lead unfolded in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series event at Pocono.
Hamlin, who went on to score his 50th win in the NASCAR Cup Series, was running in second on a late-race restart, when he got to the inside of the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro, driven by Larson.
As the two drivers went side-by-side, there appeared to be some slight contact – although Hamlin denies that notion – sending Larson up the track, and into the outside wall at the exit of the first corner.
Although the damage to his Hendrick Motorsports entry didn’t look severe, the performance was hampered, causing Larson to drift back through the pack to come home with a disappointing 20th-place result, after leading 24 laps.
“I’m not here to defend anything,” Hamlin said in his post-race winner’s press conference. “I put both those guys, the 48 and 5, in an aero situation. Didn’t touch either one. How can you wreck someone you don’t touch?”
“They make a decision to either let off the gas and race side-by-side or hit the gas and hit the wall. I mean, I put them to those decisions. I didn’t overshoot the corner. I was behind. I tried to get position on him, knew it was going to be tight off of two, but always made sure I left a lane or more, more than a lane.”
“It’s the same, these Next Gen cars, for whatever, you get in that spot near the car on the outside, it sends them very tight. It just tightens their aero balance. Everyone knows it. Kyle [Larson] is one of the best aero blockers in our field.”
Hamlin, who used a two-tire strategy to cycle into second after pit stops, knew it was going to be difficult to make the pass on Larson without a restart. So, the veteran driver elected to save his stuff, should a caution be displayed… and it’s a good thing he did.
“I knew once he got the lead and it was green, there was no way I was going to go around him, so I backed off and just waited, tried not to burn my shit for a restart later because he knows how to put you in a situation to just kill your car,” Hamlin added. “We waited. We pounced at the right time. He didn’t get his right sides clean, drove in the corner too far, and let us get beside him. I thought we were going to race it out off two. He got the fence.”
Larson, like several other observers, noted the similarity between the move Hamlin made for the win on Sunday, and the move he made on Ross Chastain to take the lead last season at Pocono, to which Hamlin replied: “Same move he made to Bubba. Did he mention that, or no? Gotcha.”
“We’re racing for a win. Are you shitting me,” Hamlin said when asked if he raced Larson with respect. “For sure. I mean, if I’m going to give anyone the respect, it’s Kyle Larson, just because I respect him as a race car driver, I think he’s probably the best. Certainly, he’s got my respect. But, damn, I mean, we’re all racing for a win. I guarantee you, roles reversed, it goes the same way.”
The 42-year-old driver made further remarks about the change in culture when it comes to racing for a win, saying that drivers are now more willing to take on the mindset of doing whatever they have to do in order to win in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“Was I going to let off and give him all the extra room? Absolutely not,” Hamlin said. “I wanted to race side-by-side because I earned the spot of getting beside him. I don’t feel like there was any contact. I’m pretty confident in that. I could be wrong though, because I’m on the other side of the car. At the time, I didn’t see his nose, and I was gassing up to try and clear him.”
“From what I saw, I ran up into the middle lane, and after that we ran really close to each other. He got in an aero-tight situation that made his car take off. That was it. But, it’s hard racing. Certainly nothing intentional. I think the best way to win them is duel it out side-by-side. That’s how I thought we were going to come off of turn two.”.
Even though it’s probably going to be an awkward couple of weeks on the golf course, both drivers were adamant that they prefer to keep the on-track feelings separate from the off-track relationships.
“I try to separate it as much as I can. If he feels as though he owes me one on the racetrack, then that’s up for him to decide. I will distinguish that differently from our friendship off the racetrack,” said Hamlin. “What people don’t understand is you actually kind of race your buddies harder than you race others. It’s weird how it works out that way.”
Though, as Larson explained in his post-race interview on Sunday, the tension between the two NASCAR Cup Series winners, even if it ends up being short-lived, will definitely make things feel “shitty and awkward” for the time being.