It was not unusual to see Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson fighting for the win at Pocono Raceway in the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday (July 23). Hamlin and Larson starred in one of the season’s best finishes at Kansas Speedway earlier this year. In 2021, they were the two dominant drivers of the Cup Series by a wide margin. It seemed like the Nos. 11 and 5 would battle for wins every week and shake hands once the race was over, no matter who wound up in victory lane.
Hamlin and Larson are friends away from the track, and whatever battles they’ve had never appeared to put a strain on that friendship. Until now.
During a scramble for the lead with seven laps to go, Hamlin and Larson were side-by-side when Hamlin washed up the track at the exit of turn 1. Larson was to his outside, and Hamlin’s wide arc out of the corner forced Larson out of the groove and into the wall. Larson had to lift off the gas to avoid serious damage to his car and lost several positions in the process. Moments later, after a caution came out for a crash back in the pack, Larson drove up next to Hamlin and squeezed him into the wall.
The turn 1 contact effectively ended Larson’s shot at the win. Hamlin held the lead the rest of the way as Larson faded back to 20th by the time the checkered flag flew. Hamlin scored his seventh win at Pocono and 50th Cup victory.
His post-race burnout was met with a storm of boos from the crowd. Yet Hamlin offered no apologies for either the incident with Larson or a similar altercation with Ross Chastain last year.
“Both guys wrecked themselves,” Hamlin said post-race. “[Larson] missed the corner first, and evidently, he didn’t have his right-side tires cleaned, and when he gassed up he just kept going again. You have an option in those positions to either hold it wide open and hit the fence, or to lift and race it out. But those are the choices they made. I didn’t hit either one of them. Didn’t touch ‘em.”
Larson did not confront Hamlin after the race, but his interview was revealing.
“I’ve been cost a lot of good finishes by Denny throughout my career,” Larson said. “I know he says I race a certain way, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to apologize to him about anything.
“Yeah, we’re friends,” he added. “Yes, this makes things shitty and awkward, but whatever. He’s always right, all the buddies know Denny is always right, so I’m sure he was in the right there as well, but it is what it is. I’m not gonna let it tarnish the friendship on track, but I am pissed. And I feel like I should be pissed. But I’m sure if you tune into Actions Detrimental he’ll have a long clip about it.
“I’ve never had to apologize to him about anything, anything I’ve done on the racetrack. I can count four or five times where he’s had to reach out to me and been like, ‘Oh, man, sorry I put you in a bad spot there,’ or whatever, and eventually, like he says, you gotta start racing people a certain way to get the respect back. He pulled the same move on Ross last year, which Ross probably deserved it, right, with all the stuff that he’s done to Denny in his career. Again, I haven’t done that to Denny. So, I don’t think I deserve to be run into before I ever got to the wall.”
Even on his worst days, Larson rarely displays this level of displeasure with another driver. It has certainly never happened with Hamlin, even though the two of them have had several close battles in recent years. At Kansas, Larson was disappointed to lose the race but did not blame Hamlin for any inappropriate moves on track. Similarly, Hamlin threw a huge block on Larson during the final lap of the 2021 Southern 500. Larson didn’t take issue with Hamlin at that time either, likely knowing that his own deep corner-diving, wall-riding move was a last-ditch effort to catch Hamlin anyway.
Perhaps a better example is the incident between Larson and Bubba Wallace at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year. Larson had every right to be furious with Wallace but seemed to understand why he acted so forcefully. Larson was critical of Wallace retaliating at a high-speed track, but he admitted that Wallace had a reason to be upset and that drivers let their emotions get the best of them from time to time.
The point of Larson’s frustration is not that he got raced hard and wound up losing. Larson is frustrated because, in his judgment, Hamlin raced him in a way that Larson does not race reciprocate.
Yes, Larson has made some moves like Hamlin’s before, including door-slamming Justin Haley in the 2022 Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum, running teammate Chase Elliott wide at Watkins Glen International last year and of course the Las Vegas altercation with Wallace. But all of those incidents happened outside the scope of how Larson and Hamlin race each other. This is a classic case of “you didn’t race me the way I race you,” and it’s going to test Larson and Hamlin’s friendship like never before.
Larson clearly feels like he got the Chastain treatment from Hamlin, even if that’s not what Hamlin intended. Hamlin never fully admitted it, but the incident at Pocono last year when Chastain crashed out was obvious payback. In that case, Hamlin squeezed Chastain up toward the wall at the exit of the turn, ensuring that Chastain either had to lift or hit the curved portion of the wall.
In Sunday’s race, Hamlin washed up into Larson and began turning back to the left more quickly than he did with Chastain. Instead of slamming the wall like Chastain did, Larson hit the wall flush at the very exit of the corner. The damage did not immediately knock Larson out of the race and probably could have been avoided if Larson had lifted. Hamlin was not trying to wreck Larson, but he was not very cognizant of Larson’s space.
The problem here is that Hamlin’s and Larson’s off-track friendship makes the context of the incident worse. Notice how Larson, who had his own run-in with Chastain at Darlington a couple of months ago, said that Chastain probably deserved a move like that from Hamlin because of their past feuds. But if Larson and Hamlin are friends, should Hamlin have more respect for Larson’s space?
Larson obviously feels like there have been other instances where Hamlin pushed things too far, but none of those instances led to the sharp, very personal criticism that Larson had for Hamlin last weekend.
The fact that Larson correctly predicted that Hamlin would not be apologetic doesn’t help matters. Hamlin did address the incident in Actions Detrimental on Monday (July 24), and his explanation centered on the belief that he thought he could not pass Larson and win the race without making a decisive move on the restart. Hamlin’s stance is that he did not want to wreck Larson but that the opportunity to score such a significant win, combined with the difficulty to pass the leader at an aero-sensitive track like Pocono, demanded that he act quickly.
It’s an explanation that provides some valuable perspective. However, it is not an apology, and Larson maintains that he is owed one.
It feels like Pocono will have a significant impact on how Larson races Hamlin going forward. The core of motorsports is to race others how they race you. Larson clearly thinks that Hamlin violated that rule.
The next time the No. 5 is racing the No. 11 for a win, all those other weeks where Larson and Hamlin battled hard and came out smiling are going to matter much less than what happened at Pocono.
Sunday’s race may have finally done what the entire 2021 season could not do: force Hamlin and Larson to draw a line between friendly competition and rivalry.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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