Bryan Davis Keith · Sunday September 26, 2010
Earlier this season, with reconstructive knee surgery only days away, Denny Hamlin turned in one of the most impressive short track performances the sport has seen in the last decade, stealing a thrilling victory at Martinsville that reversed the course of the 2010 season for the No. 11 team. Yet I, like many other writers, wrote off Hamlin the second he left Martinsville, heading for a surgical knife that would cut both his knee and championship aspirations to shreds. Surely, there was no way a driver coming off of knee surgery could last a full length Sprint Cup race. Surely, Casey Mears would be driving the No. 11 car for weeks, maybe even months.
I was wrong. As if there was any doubt to Hamlin’s talent behind the wheel, his six win 2010 campaign is nothing short of miraculous. From a gutsy performance at Phoenix that saw the Virginia native refuse to give up the wheel, even when running in the 30s multiple laps down to a win at Texas one week later, Hamlin has forced a lot of writers such as myself to eat crow as he enters Dover leading the Cup standings, a legitimate contender for stock car racing’s ultimate championship.
For any driver out there, the Sprint Cup is about as big as it gets, one of the most difficult pursuits in all of sports. And in Hamlin’s case, that difficulty cannot be overstated. Because while his immense driving talent has put an earlier article of mine to shame regarding the possible implications of his early season knee injury, his immense ego and immaturity threaten to derail one of the most remarkable seasons any driver has experienced during the Chase era. The biggest enemy of the No. 11 team heading into Sunday’s event has proven to be themselves; or, namely, their driver.
Friday’s press conferences set the stage, with Hamlin not merely speaking what he felt was “a lot of truth…not popular with the teams involved,” but instead calling out the integrity of both a competitor’s team and a respected organization. Following a heated press conference in which Clint Bowyer angrily and pointedly defended his No. 33 team following a 150-point penalty for rules infractions at New Hampshire, for some odd reason Hamlin felt the need to step in as if a defense lawyer, almost verbatim dissecting Bowyer’s case for his team. Hamlin went to painstaking lengths not only to describe the technical advantages surrounding the infractions found on Bowyer’s No. 33 car, but went even further to describe Richard Childress Racing as lucky to be in the Chase in the first place – an organization that, according to him, NASCAR had been warning all season long for being on the edge.
It’s not at all surprising that such remarks set off a firestorm both in the media center and the garage. Not only was this an example of two Chasers feuding in a way that NASCAR’s wannabe-playoff system has never entertained before, this was an example of a still young driver attacking an organization that has won more Sprint Cups than Hamlin has run full seasons in the series. And what’s more, Hamlin’s accusations that NASCAR had long been watching RCR and the No. 33 team for possible infractions were just that… Hamlin’s accusations. In fact, Greg Biffle within minutes of Hamlin’s statements stated publicly that he had no knowledge of NASCAR having RCR under surveillance for possible violations.
The stage was set for Saturday. Early in practice, Hamlin and RCR driver Kevin Harvick made on-track contact early into their practice runs, sending both cars to the garage for repairs. And, since the No. 29 and No. 11 are 1-2 in points, the two drivers just happened to be parked next to each other, making the ensuing conflict between drivers and crew chiefs that saw heated words exchanged and fingers pointed before NASCAR officials stepped in all but inevitable.
Said a dumbfounded Richard Childress after the episode, “you can’t win a pissing contest with a skunk”, referring to Hamlin – and retracting his Friday pledge to sly away from the controversy and not say anything negative about his detractors.
Well, skunk or not, heading into Sunday it’s abundantly clear that Hamlin has not only irritated the RCR camp, he has enraged them. When the No. 11 takes the green flag on Sunday, it’s no longer going to be a case of just taking it easy whenever he’s about to lap the No. 12 Dodge. Now, Hamlin has three cars to deal with on-track not only capable of keeping up with him, but out to get him. And he’s got no one to blame for that but himself.
The video record of Saturday’s record is incomplete. No one can say for sure what happened to instigate the on-track incident between Hamlin and Harvick. But that’s not to say there weren’t witnesses. Said one Nationwide Series driver I happened to be speaking to shortly after the incident, it was abundantly clear what had happened:
“Hamlin brake-checked him [Harvick].”
Whatever happened prior to the videotaped contact on track, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. And if that’s in fact what happened, as the video suggests, there’s a whole bunch of issues that need to be addressed. For one, it’s an example of the No. 11 driver being unable to let an incident go, instead choosing to pull a fast one on-track, and with a driver that’s got a long documented history of having a temper in Kevin Harvick.
It’s also an example of Hamlin not practicing what he preaches. For a driver who’s had no qualms the last several seasons calling out drivers such as Brad Keselowski for their willingness to use the chrome horn on the race track, here was a case of Hamlin using his car not to race, but to impede and annoy a competitor, to essentially turn the No. 11 into a chrome roadblock. And in practice, no less. It’s not like this is the first case of Denny choosing to play rough with his cars, either. Be it under green running over David Reutimann at Pocono August of last year or under yellow, slamming into Keselowski in a Nationwide Series race at Charlotte in 2008, Hamlin’s got himself a significant rap sheet for starting altercations on the track. He just doesn’t seem to handle it well when the shoe’s on the other foot.
Perhaps most notably, though, it’s yet another example of Hamlin’s Jeff Gordon complex coming to life. A driver who’s publicly made comments in the past about his frustrations that NASCAR seemingly would listen to Gordon more than listening to him, it suddenly makes some sort of sense that Hamlin would not only go out of his way to be belligerent and inflammatory in insinuating that wicked deeds were afoot back at RCR, but that he felt the need to insert himself into the entire Bowyer conflict in the first place. The funny thing, though, is how much will this whole episode really matter to Hamlin’s title chances anyway if he sat there and minded his own business? Assuming that Bowyer did cheat, the No. 33 car was illegal and had a huge advantage, Hamlin finished second to it by less than a second and holds the points lead over that team regardless. Bowyer’s team got caught, they’ve got their own mess to deal with, and it’s one that has stripped their team of much of the momentum they built at Loudon.
But Hamlin just couldn’t let this sleeping dog lie. He had to make the episode relevant to himself. He had to say his piece, and NASCAR just had to listen.
Problem for him is, RCR was listening too. And by lighting a fire under an organization that built its reputation on the back of the Intimidator himself, Hamlin has perhaps awakened the sleeping giant that even his driving talent can’t overcome.
Thanks to his mouth and his actions Saturday morning, RCR has every reason to be out for blood. Their integrity has been questioned. Their legitimacy as Chase participants has been questioned. Their sheet metal has been bent. And all of this by a member of NASCAR’s youth movement that needed to do nothing more than keep his mouth shut and focus on running well at a track that derailed his title chase one year ago, long before engine failures sealed the No. 11 team’s fate.
The stage truly is set for Hamlin to do something remarkable. To come back and win the Sprint Cup the same season as having reconstructive knee surgery would be an accomplishment worthy of ending Jimmie Johnson’s four-year reign at the top. It’s an accomplishment that would take an equally worthy gaffe to throw off course.
Declaring war on Richard Childress, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer just may be a gaffe that big. Because the last time Hamlin and Bowyer tangled on-track just happened to be at Dover. And while Hamlin drew first blood in wrecking Bowyer, Bowyer used his wrecked race car to make sure he took Hamlin with him.
History has a way of repeating itself.
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