Denny Hamlin may be the most qualified to weigh in on Wednesday night’s clash between Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott, outside of the two drivers themselves. Sure, the midweek drama unfolded in his rear-view mirror at Darlington Raceway, but Hamlin had his own infamous run-in with the Hendrick Motorsports driver late in the 2017 campaign.
Hamlin, fresh from his victory in the Toyota 500, offered his perspective on where the two go from here with three more NASCAR Cup Series events coming up in short order. He also chimed in on how any act of retribution might be perceived.
“Well, you can look at it a couple different ways,” Hamlin said on a Thursday morning Zoom call with reporters. “I would say if Chase were to retaliate, you know that’s intentional, right? We all know it’s intentional. What Kyle did was unintentional. Now, is the score really even if one’s intentional and one is not? Probably not. The result might be equal, but it’s not equal as far as intention. So I don’t know. I have a different philosophy as you well know.”
Busch’s No. JGR 18 Toyota tangled with Elliott’s No. 9 HMS Chevrolet during their contest for second place in the late stages of Wednesday’s race. When Busch tried to get back in line with the pack on the frontstretch, he said he checked his mirror and misjudged the running room in front of him, clipping Elliott’s car and sending it skidding toward the inside wall.
Elliott’s day was done in 38th place, while Busch held on for second as rain abbreviated the race. Busch took the blame, had a post-race discussion with No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson and issued apologies to Elliott and his crew.
Hamlin’s own at-track encounter with Elliott fanned similar flames in the 2017 playoffs at Martinsville Speedway, where he applied a back-bumper nudge that ignited a post-race confrontation. The two collided again the next weekend at Phoenix Raceway with Hamlin getting the worst of it.
Hamlin acknowledged his Martinsville miscue, much in the same way Busch did at Darlington.
“I think Kyle handled it the best he possibly could, to be honest,” Hamlin said. “I think that he owned up to it, he knew he made a mistake, and I knew I made a mistake when it happened. If you look back at my interview, I said well, he crashed because I ran into him. I basically lifted his back tires up, he had no options. We’re talking about this more, right, because he’s popular, and obviously they were up toward the front. You don’t see Kyle Busch making a mistake that often, but everyone is cutthroat on the space right now.”
When asked if Busch accepting responsibility for the misstep helped to soothe any tensions, Gustafson said, “No, ultimately he made a mistake and I get it and I don’t think he intentionally wrecked us, but you just get tired of coming out on the wrong end of those deals too often.” It’s a feeling that Hamlin felt frequently during the early part of his career when he feuded with an up-and-coming Brad Keselowski on a regular basis.
Hamlin said that Keselowski’s desire to prove himself early on showed on the race track, where his actions communicated that he was determined to stand his ground. Does the same logic apply to Elliott, in terms of needing to demonstrate that he won’t buckle when pushed? Hamlin said it’s a matter of picking one’s spots.
“You have to know when to push back, and I don’t think you have to because of pressure from either your team or the media or whatever,” Hamlin said. “The drivers respect Chase and they respect whoever it might be. If Chase doesn’t retaliate, no driver thinks any less of him. Every driver out there saw that Kyle just made a small mistake. He misjudged. We don’t go out there and expect Chase to do anything to him. If he does, that raises your eyebrow more than what Kyle did, in my opinion.
“I don’t think that Chase needs to fight for relevance. We all know he’s good and he’s talented and he’s going to win a ton of races, and I don’t race him any different. I race him tough, just the same as I did before I crashed him at Martinsville. That’s a sign of respect for me is to race someone tough and that give and take, but there is times where you don’t always have to race tough. You have to race smart, too, and that’s what wins races.”