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July 23, 2023

Kyle Larson gets short end of late-race contact with Hamlin at Pocono

LONG POND, Pa. – Kyle Larson’s rebound from an early spin went for naught Sunday at Pocono Raceway after an unfriendly push up the track sent him from second to a 20th-place finish in the 400.

Despite a Lap 46 slide, Larson found himself on the outside of the front row on a restart with eight laps remaining. A shove from Denny Hamlin launched Larson to the lead entering Turn 1, but Hamlin dove to Larson’s left on corner entry and drew alongside the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Hamlin drifted high on corner exit, forcing Larson wide – with apparent slight door-to-door contact – and into the outside SAFER barrier on the Long Pond Straightaway.

When the yellow flag flew for Justin Haley’s crash in the next corner, Larson pulled up alongside Hamlin’s car and brushed him on the frontstretch as the field slowed.

Hamlin went on to score a record seventh Pocono victory, his 50th career win and the 600th national series triumph for Toyota. Larson was relegated to a 20th-place finish.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos: Pocono

The move was eerily similar to the move Hamlin used on Ross Chastain at the 2.5-mile triangular track one year ago, when Chastain slammed the wall, spun and exited the race prematurely in 2022. Larson was plenty conscious of that going into Turn 1.

“I was nervous of the move that happened because he made it work on Ross last year and he dirtied him up,” Larson said. “He knows and Ross deserved it last year for all the times that he got into Denny.

“I felt like I didn’t. I deserved to be raced with respect at least through Turn 1. But he knew that was gonna be his only opportunity to beat me with how bad dirty air was. So I got used up.”

Hamlin, on the other hand, believed his car never touched Larson’s and simply forced the 2021 Cup champion into a choice.

“How can you wreck someone you don’t touch?” Hamlin said. “They make a decision to either let off the gas and race side-by-side, or hit the gas and hit the wall. I mean, I put them to those decisions. I didn’t overshoot the corner. I was behind them. I tried to get position on them. I knew it was going to be tight off of two, but always made sure I left a lane or more – more than a lane.

“These Next Gen cars, for whatever reason, you get in that spot near the car on the outside, it sends them very tight. It just tightens their aero balance. Everyone knows it. You know, Kyle is one of the best aero blockers in our field. I knew once he got the lead and it was green, there’s just no way I was gonna go around him and so I just backed off and just waited and tried not to burn up my (expletive) for a restart later because he knows how to put you in a situation to just kill your car.”

This isn’t the first time Larson and Hamlin have battled one-on-one for the win. In May, the duo fought for the victory at Kansas Speedway – which resulted in contact from Hamlin that sent Larson into the wall.

The two are friends off-track, but Larson’s frustration lingered longer Sunday afternoon.

“We’ve had a handful of run-ins. I’ve never had to reach out to apologize,” Larson said. “He’s always been the one that’s reached out to me and been like, ‘Hey, man, sorry. You know, I messed up there a little bit or sorry I put you in a bad spot, whatever. Sorry I hurt your day.’ I’ve never had to do that to him.

“Sure, maybe there’s been times where he’s been frustrated with me. But I’ve never hurt his results. You know, I should have at least been top two. I finished (20th). In my eyes, I mean, hey, I could have 10 more playoff points, two more wins right now if not for the 11. So yeah, I’m pissed. I should be.”

Hamlin disagreed that the two have had “run-ins,” but acknowledged past incidents where they’ve collided.

“I got in the back of him at Atlanta (in 2022) trying to push him,” Hamlin said. “That’s in a draft. We’re drafting. So that was a draft gone bad. And then like once again, we’re racing for the win at Kansas and he gets in the fence, comes off the fence and I tagged him in the left rear.

“I mean, I get it. I know (where) you guys are trying to go with this. But you know, I’ve been on the (bad) end of so many of these results. And when it comes to getting (win No.) 50 for me, 600 for Toyota, I’m going to make sure that I drive as hard as I possibly can – and respectful. That’s why I left him more than a lane off the Turn 2.”

But asked if he raced Larson with respect at Pocono, Hamlin was incredulous.

“We’re racing for the win. Are you (kidding) me?” he said. “For sure, I mean, if I’m gonna give anyone in the field respect, it’s Kyle Larson just because I respect him as a race car driver and I think he’s probably the best. So certainly, he’s got my respect, but damn, I mean, we’re all racing for a win and I guarantee you, roles reversed, it goes the same way.”

Still, Larson doesn’t anticipate much change in their relationship, noting Hamlin “races me like a (jerk)” but that he’s still a friend and separates what happens on-track from off-track life well. But he admitted he’s unsure when enough is enough.

“As we’ve all heard him say, eventually he has to race a certain way to get some respect back,” Larson said. “I’m an aggressive racer, I get it. But I tend to race my friends with more respect. But I just feel like I haven’t gotten that respect from him, especially this year.”