Denny Hamlin embraces the chaos ahead of championship bid at Phoenix

PHOENIX — As far as Championship 4 Media Day appearances go, Thursday’s session with NASCAR Cup Series title hopeful Denny Hamlin was an all-timer.

Hamlin, fresh from a controversial late-race clash with Alex Bowman last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, turns the page just a few days later to this Sunday’s championship race (3 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App/Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway. Lest anyone think that’s a tough transition to make, Hamlin explained how he’s dealing with it — from the post-race frustration to the fallout from his fiery interview to the fan reaction that rained down on him from the Martinsville stands.

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“I mean, how do I get up in the morning and take my kids to school at 7:30, how do I go to 23XI and work for a couple days in the middle of the week during a playoff run. I live in chaos,” Hamlin said during Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center. “My life is chaos, and I just, I thrive under chaos. Honestly, you can probably ask Kyle, the more (expletive) that is stirred up around me, the more I come at it. So I don’t mind things like that. …

“To me, it’s just fuel. I have so much fuel in my tank right now from just motivation. There’s a lot of motivation there.”

Hamlin will be vying for his first Cup Series championship again, making the Championship 4 for the third consecutive year. He’ll take the measure of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., plus Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson in Sunday’s season finale.

Getting to the championship round was its own adventure. Hamlin’s seemingly comfortable points gap looked plenty vulnerable at Martinsville, where he rallied from the back of the field twice (once for pre-race tech violations, another for a pit-road speeding penalty) to contend for the win. The ending of that comeback story unraveled when Bowman’s aggressive push with less than 10 laps remaining left his No. 11 Toyota spinning, demoting him to 24th place at the end.

That move prompted a testy reaction on multiple levels, especially in the context of one Sunday’s race to the next.

“I really wanted to make a pretty strong statement at Martinsville, starting in the back, from back to the back again, and driving all the way to the front and winning that race would be like the old foot on the throat heading into this weekend, right?” Hamlin said. “I feel like that that momentum was taken away, was taken from us. But again, the momentum then in my head swings back around into now ultra-motivated, because I just I love the feeling of just proving people wrong.”

Bowman had said he planned to contact Hamlin in the wake of their late-race confrontation, but Hamlin said he had yet to hear from him. “It just shows, again, the lack of respect, right? I mean, so you know, I think they think that well, I said ‘sorry’ on TV, so that’s good. It’s just, guys aren’t men anymore.”

That note led Hamlin down the path of describing the differences — in racing styles and perceived integrity — between the newer crop of drivers and his own demographic, the older, veteran guard of the series. Meantime, Bowman’s camp had T-shirts printed that made light of Hamlin’s post-race remarks, where he referred to the race winner as an “absolute hack” in televised interviews.

“I mean, I don’t have a reaction to it,” Hamlin said, adding that he did not buy one. “It’s you know, they’re gonna thrive off of any kind of bump or hit that they can get during that time. You know, certainly, I think drivers in general in our series lack originality. So I’m glad I could help them out.”

Hamlin might be considered a sentimental favorite for Sunday’s title as a driver who has paid his dues and a veteran looking for the lone missing piece from his Cup Series resume. Last Sunday’s sentiment was mixed at best and overwhelmingly negative at its most honest worst.

Being a home-state favorite with a history of Martinsville success didn’t matter much Sunday, given the raucous reaction from the crowd after Hamlin’s spin and his piped-in interview over the track’s public address. Hamlin still ties it all back to his spinout of Elliott at the same track in 2017, making a nod to Elliott’s disagreement with Kevin Harvick that stirred the playoff cauldron.

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“It doesn’t correlate to common sense. Honestly, we were the guys that were crashed. We were booed?” Hamlin said. “I’m confused. What’s going on? Obviously people were passionate about their driver, which, that’s OK. But honestly, it doesn’t make any sense in the grand scheme of like what’s actually going on. It’s just bitter fans from half a decade ago. They just cannot get over it.

“There was controversy a few weeks ago, right? Eventually one of the drivers said, I’ve had enough, I’m done taking your (expletive), I’m going to crash you. I think that probably needs to happen a little bit more often to get some respect back. Obviously NASCAR’s not going to police the stuff. This is stuff that certainly fuels popularity. The drivers have to get back to self-policing, I think. That probably is going to have to come through the hard way.”

Back to the chaos-thriving part, does Hamlin necessarily bristle at the negative fan feedback?

“You would rather be booed than ignored,” Hamlin said. “The moment you get ignored, it’s bad news, you’re on your way out.”

In this roundabout campaign for Hamlin, one filled with remarkable consistency, a shockingly winless regular season and a steady playoff upswing, he still has a chance to cash in on another chance for postseason glory.

If that happens in front of a packed house Sunday and the reaction is somewhere between cheers and boo-birds — polite golf clap, perhaps? — Hamlin says he’ll be able to tune out the noise and simply bask in the moment.

“I’m not sure. I’ll be so happy for myself and my team, I won’t care. I really won’t,” Hamlin said. “I know how hard we worked to get here, how hard I worked, all the sacrifices my family has made to get me to this point. I’m going to try to find my family as soon as possible, give ’em a hug.”