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May 15, 2017

The Hoop Group: Where NASCAR meets pickup basketball

On Sunday, he’s known as Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

But on Wednesday evenings, he trades his fire suit and helmet for a pair of crisp Jordan XXXIs and a black basketball jersey with “James D” printed on the back.

He’s just Denny, the multi-faceted baller for the third-seeded Walnutz in the Hoop Group league.

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The Hoop Group is a five-team basketball league that Hamlin started last year. Games are played at the indoor “Sun Energy Arena” court … located in Hamlin’s North Carolina home. Tonight is special for this group of pickup basketball players, as it marks the second round of playoffs when the four best teams will face off for a spot in the championship game.

The team rosters list an eclectic mix of drivers — like Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Ty Dillon and Kasey Kahne — media personnel ranging from Rick Allen to Michael Waltrip, and simply friends such as Ron Herbert, who owns Red Rocks Café.

“I used to play in a Birkdale (local) basketball league and then I moved and I had an outdoor court and that was fun for like two months of the year when the weather was good — it was either too hot or too cold, usually,” Hamlin says Wednesday night ahead of the playoff games. “And then I decided I wanted to build my own house, it was high on my priority list was to have a full indoor court and eventually I wanted to move the Birkdale basketball league to here, but instead we just started our own league.

“The group just got bigger and bigger and next thing you know, we’re up to 30 guys that want to play on a weekly basis. Of course, things get competitive within the league, it continues to grow — next season we’re going to go to a sixth team and have bye weeks for guys.”

Like NBA games, there are black-and-white-striped-clad referees, a large digital scoreboard and stat keepers at every game. Hamlin’s 4-year-old daughter Taylor even runs onto the court Wednesday night dressed in a navy cheerleading uniform for a “halftime performance.”

And just like the NBA, there’s also a draft before each season.

“There (are) 30 different players that were eligible in the draft,” Hamlin explains. “We have five teams, six players per team. So you get drafted on a team and we set up matchups each week. Each team plays (every other) team one time during the regular season, and then you seed them based on the record for the playoffs.”

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Now, that second round of playoffs has arrived; Seeds 1 and 4 will square off twice and Seeds 2 and 3 will play two games, with a third game being possible if either split the pair of matchups.

An hour before the first game’s tipoff, many players begin to trickle onto the court:

Fresh off his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega Superspeedway, Stenhouse Jr. is one of the first to arrive. Along with fellow Monster Energy Series driver Ty Dillon, he is a part of Hamlin’s Walnutz team. The Walnutz are facing the second-seeded GFY team in the first game, so Stenhouse begins warming up by shooting baskets.

“We play hard defense,” Stenhouse tells of his team. “We probably play harder defense than we race each other on the race track. This is all bragging rights. Denny and I are on the same team and then you’ve got Blaney and Austin Dillon on different teams, so I generally guard one of them and we play tough defense. We run each other around, wear each other out, so it’s fun.”

It would appear so. During the night’s first game Ty Dillon makes an aggressive lunge for the ball and smacks hard into the wall, leaving a large hole.

“I’m kind of a bull in a china shop sometimes,” Dillon tells afterward with a sheepish smile. “I guess rubbin’s racin’? Or rubbin’s basketball.”

For Dillon, who says he was moved to an opening on Hamlin’s team a few weeks ago from what he refers to as the “D-Leagues,” playing in the Hoop Group has given him the opportunity to interact with other race car drivers outside the race track.

“For me being a (Monster Energy Series) rookie, it’s nice to get to know these guys away from the track and create those relationships,” Dillon says. “I’ve known Bubba (Wallace) and Ryan (Blaney) my whole life, my whole career. But to get know Denny and Ricky and some of the guys, just create different relationships away from the race track has been nice.”

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Game 1: Hamlin’s Walnutz defeat GFY using some hard defense (and one damaged wall). Now, it’s time for the first game between the fourth-ranked Wisemen and the No. 1 Shockers.

But the Wisemen seem to be down one player as the game tips off.

“There he is,” Hamlin says five minutes into the game. “I think I saw a head.”

Point guard Austin Dillon jogs into the arena in street clothes, having just landed from a test at Kentucky Speedway minutes prior.

“How’s he not dressed?” Hamlin says.

Dillon quickly changes into his uniform and joins his team on the court. The 27-year-old driver records a combined 31 points throughout both his games, the most among all the players that night. Dillon’s young age gives him several advantages on the basketball court, Hamlin says.

“It usually goes in order of age,” Hamlin says on the best players. “Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney — the young guys. They have a lot of stamina and they’re really fast. So they’re really good players.”

Another guy who shows some speed? Darrell Wallace Jr., who is part of the top-seeded Shockers team that ultimately won both of Wednesday night’s games against the Wisemen and to advance to the championship.

“I made some baskets I was pretty pumped about that,” Wallace said of his performance.

“It’s tough, everyone here is playing their heart out,” he continued. “We’ve got real refs, that shows you how intense the competition is … I’m such a huge competitor with myself, so I get pissed off at myself when I shoot bad or play bad defense … I try to stay out of all the drama on the court — it’s a little too much, we all have real day jobs. But all of us are out here to have fun, score a couple baskets and hopefully win the title.”

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As the sun sets on Lake Norman behind the glass wall, the intensity certainly seemed to ramp up: There are a few questions thrown toward the refs on calls, a couple of frustrated remarks at other team members and plenty of sweat being dripped onto Hamlin’s court.

“This is some intense basketball action here at the Hamlin arena,” Michael Waltrip says.

Ultimately, Hamlin’s Walnutz lose the tie-breaking third game, giving second-seeded GFY a spot in the championship game, along with the No. 1 Shockers. They’ll compete for a big gold trophy that Hamlin designs each year — and “bragging rights,” as Stenhouse says.

Because when it comes down to it, pickup basketball is plenty of fun, but these drivers never stop competing.

“All of the reason we do it is we’re all competitors, whether it’s on a golf course or a basketball court and we just kind of have a place now to do it,” Hamlin says. “For me, it helps with exercise — I’ll never be one of those guys that puts on their running shoes and goes for a 5K run or a 10-mile run, or I’ll never get on Jimmie Johnson’s bike and pedal for 50 miles, but I’ll go on the basketball court and work out. And we’ve seen some of the data — it’s about 6.5 miles of running on game night. So, it’s a good run, but out on the street, I just can’t do it.

“As long as I have a ball in my hand, I can go.”