The Chase Elliott-Denny Hamlin rivalry continued Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and it had massive playoff implications.
With just under 45 laps remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8 cutoff race, the pair of drivers — who confronted each other after a heated Martinsville race earlier this round — battled aggressively for position inside the top three.
The beating and banging wound up in the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s favor at the time, with the contact endured by Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota proving to be too much. Hamlin’s car began to smoke with a tire rub and hit the wall hard to bring out the caution shortly after.
Elliott would go on to take the lead late in the race, before giving way to eventual winner Matt Kenseth — a wild chain of events that ultimately saw Brad Keselowski claim the final spot in the Championship 4.
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After smacking the wall, Hamlin drove his limped car to the garage and climbed out, ending his race and his title hopes.
“We had a fast car all day. … We put ourselves in good position, things just didn’t work out there at the end,” Hamlin told NBC Sports after being evaluated and released from the infield care center.
The fracas immediately brought to mind Hamlin moving Elliott for the lead just two weeks ago — a move that resulted in heavy criticism of the veteran driver.
“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things. It just proves to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” said Hamlin, who will have to wait another year for a chance at his first career title. “It’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate. I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”
Elliott logged yet another runner-up finish, and gave his own view of what happened between the two.
“I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face, regardless,” Elliott said. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me, and that’s the way I see it.”
One race remains this season in Miami, but the only thing left on the line for both drivers now will be the race trophy. Elliott came up just short of his bid to reach the Championship 4 after he was unable to regain his lead from Kenseth.
Coming within one spot of advancing to a veteran-laced title picture paired with his tension with Hamlin throughout the Round of 8 leaves the 21-year-old Elliott a more experienced, determined and focused driver, he said.
“I would like to think (I grew as a race car driver today) … ,” Elliott said. “I hope I grow as a person every week and grow as a racer every week. That is something I think everybody tries to do and I try to do better and do my job and came up short again and that is frustrating and I get it.
“We just have to keep our morale high and go to Homestead next week and get ready to close out the season strong and bring everything we’ve got come next season.”