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Denny Hamlin Shares His Take on Aggressive NASCAR Tactics: "You Adapt or You Die"
Under a mountain of criticism for taking out Kyle Larson at Pocono, JGR’s wheelman explains what he sees as NASCAR's new reality.
If there were still any doubt, after Denny Hamlin’s "Pocono Push" on Kyle Larson, the era of gentlemanly tactics in modern day stock car racing appears to be officially dead.
As the fallout continues to roll through the NASCAR Cup Series, Hamlin has opened up more about the controversy. While he hates that Larson wasn’t able to secure a second-place finish, Hamlin chalked up the incident to competition in NASCAR's top flight being "just different now."
“The cars are closer together. Passing is more difficult than it’s ever been. Even Mark Martin would have to adjust his style in this type of car because the days of the gentleman letting the guys go, and you will just go and get them later – it’s just a different game these days,” offered Hamlin, according to NBC Sports.
Hamlin, who cruised to both his 50th career win and his league-record seventh victory on the Tricky Triangle says that, though he’d like to return to those days, going back is not an option
"I wish we could go back to those days, but that is not where we are at,” No. 11 continued. “You have to adapt to where you are at. You adapt or you die.”
“Certainly, I feel like over the last few years, I’ve decided to be more aggressive because I’ve got used up by aggressive [drivers], and it is hard to blame them at the time – especially in a race-winning situation. Certainly, you are upset when someone right rear hooks you or runs right in the back of you in stage one and spins you out and puts you in the wall.”
"That’s one thing – racing for the win is certainly a lot different than it has been in the past. If you have one person willing to be aggressive and one person not, aggressive will win every time. It’s just the facts of it. Usually, you are not going to find two guys that are the nice guy at the end of these races anymore. Someone has to take it the next level to want it, and then if you have two guys that really want it, you have what you had at Darlington where this person is squeezed. Well, the next restart, now that person is squeezed. That is just what happens. I’m adamant that is when the race fans win. That is when they get to see the action and the passion they want to see.”
Hamlin isn’t the only to notice the growing significance of aggression in modern day stock car racing. Earlier this year, two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch torched NASCAR for what he deemed a “respect” issue. Ahead of last week’s race in Richmond, 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski took it a step further, issuing his own dire proclamation about the nature of today’s league.
“Nobody cares what’s fair in this sport anymore, it doesn’t matter,” revealed Keselowski in his response to whether Hamlin’s move on Larson was dirty or not. “What matters is what the rules are, and the rules are it’s legal, and so that’s what we race to, right? You race to the rules. You know you always get into this different code of ethics and all that, and it means 20 different things to 20 different people.”
But that code of conduct isn’t rigid for a driver throughout the entirety his career either. As Hamlin explains, after coming into the league in 2005, he has since changed his own mindset after enduring a multitude of altercations with Ross Chastain.
“Honestly, I think it was after the Chastain thing for sure," Hamlin stated. "I was very frustrated. My team was very frustrated at me for not doing anything. The mindset has just changed. You have to put it out there that you are going to be aggressive. I think if a guy is going to run into you, you are going to run right back into him. That’s the way I’ve got to change things from this point forward because, for the most part, it has been tough results for us at the end of races, especially the last three years. I’ve been spun out of the lead three times. That’s really, really tough, so I just said it's time to be more aggressive.”
While it was tough to see his friend Larson fall to a 20th-place finish, Hamlin, who also gave Toyota its 600th career victory with his controversial move, said the jury’s still out on whether he would go back and do things differently if he could.
"Certainly, [I] hate that it came at Kyle’s [Larson] expense, for sure. If there is anyone that I should protect, it’s those guys and my teammates. The win just meant a lot to me at the time. I made an attempt to pass him, and it didn’t happen the way I intended for sure.”
“I mean, it’s really hard to say that you would do anything different," admitted Hamlin. "It is so split second. The win meant so much to me at that time. So many different records that we could accomplish with that one win – with the track, with Toyota, with myself personally – it’s hard to say in that moment that I would do anything different for sure.”