The Frontstretch: Denny Hamlin Awakens the Sleeping Giant And Fills it With Terrible Resolve by Bryan Davis Keith -- Sunday September 26, 2010

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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.

An on-track incident between Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick Saturday left everyone involved between the two teams heatedly arguing with themselves and each other over a conflict that stemmed both from a failed inspection but from Hamlin’s own words towards RCR.

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.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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Mary Grubbs
09/26/2010 02:04 AM

Thanks Bryan for a fantastic story. The only thing that will stop Denny Hamlin and his mouth is to be accused by NASCAR of some infraction that he can’t get repealed and have to go through what a lot of the other Drivers have gone through, then out of embarrassment maybe he won’t be so quick to speak so harshly about another driver or owner or anyone for that matter. It shows he has such dis-respect for his fellowmen and really makes him look bad, and as a role model for his young followers it is totally irresponsible.

09/26/2010 06:52 AM

Isn’t it interesting that the very driver who chastises another driver for showing a ‘lack of respect’ should find it necessary to inject himself into a situation that has nothing to do with him. Calling into question the integrity of an organization that has been around longer than he’s been alive? I’m impressed that Denny could see, by the naked eye, something that Nascar had to tear the car completely apart to find. If he wanted to gloat, he should have done it privately. As it is, he comes off sounding like a petulant 3 year old who is a sore loser. It certainly doesn’t show any class.

09/26/2010 08:20 AM

I’ve got nothing against Hamlin, but this seems really foolish on his part.

He does make a legitimate point though, Bowyer shouldn’t even have a chance at the championship. Not because RCR has been toeing the rules line, but because he’d only had four top fives all year before Loudon.

09/26/2010 08:43 AM

Actually, I liked what Denny said. Please note I did not say “I agree with what Denny said.”

I like it because it is fine gamesmanship. I really believe that folks, including me, forget that racing has a mental side and now Denny is way down in RCR’s head. Good for Denny. Bad for RCR. Remember the old British Army battle mantra, “Keep calm and carry on.” Denny is carrying on and RCR is having trouble — like some columists?— keeping calm. Guess who wins that fight. Mr. Childress should know. His best friend did not invent the MindF***, but he wielded it with high ability superb style.

Sharon J
09/26/2010 09:01 AM

And Nascar has known Bowyer was cheating? And they did not stop it? How dumb you are, Hamlin. btw since you were racing faster than Bowyer, you must have been cheating too.
Go Harvick!!!!!

09/26/2010 09:41 AM

Spot on analysis. Harvick thrives on mind games and controversy. Hamlin is playing right into his hands. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson must be smiling seeing his two main rivals involved in a feud.

Sue Rarick
09/26/2010 10:10 AM

You forgot to mention that before Hamlin ran his mouth Boyer all but accused the 11 aand 48 of getting away with cheating too. So Hamlin’s comments could be seen as payback for Boyers.

Nascar’s warnings are generally to let a team know that they are real close to being illegal and it happens all the time. Usually by the time it becomes public it’s been mentioned a few times in private.

Most likely RCR thought they had enough wiggle room and ignored Nascar’s warnings. Probably the only thing worse than being out of the spec tolerances was basically the ignoring of Nascars warnings.

09/26/2010 10:26 AM

I won’t stop laughing during the enire off-season, when these two MORONS wreck each other and open the door for either the #24 or #48 to win their 5th!!!

09/26/2010 10:35 AM

They’re both idiots! 1 and 2 in points smacking each other around in practice. They both could have easily went over the line and put both of them in back up cars. Do they just want to hand Jimmie Johnson another championship on a silver platter with a bow on it. On a positive note is was fun to watch!

09/26/2010 11:18 AM

A good review of Hamlin’s past on the track. He has thrown a rock at a bee hive and will surely get stung. Im just waiting for it.

09/26/2010 11:20 AM

Bowyer called out the 11 and 48 before Hamlin made his comments. The 33 is the car that failed inspection, not the 11 and 48. You also forgot to mention that Harvick hit Hamlin on pit road when they were lining up to go out for practice, and THEN they got together on the track.

I’m glad I read other stories about this, because yours leaves out a few important facts.

09/26/2010 12:02 PM

Go get ‘em Denny. Stir up RCR some more. Take each other out on the track. Anything to make those snoozefests that we have been calling races interesting.

09/26/2010 12:27 PM

As Sue has already said, Denny seems to have conveniently forgot is that both his car and the 48 failed post-race inspection, but were given a break by NASCAR and allowed time for the shocks to cool thus allowing his car to pass a second height test. Although, I wonder if it had been just his car and not the 48 if the #11 team would have been given a break. To me, this is the old “pot calling the kettle black” syndrome. But, you have to admit, it has spiced things up a little bit!

And Jacob, two words: No Way! The sport doesn’t need another title being handed to Felon Motorsports

Go Carl!

09/26/2010 02:56 PM

Contrary to ‘racefan’, I appreciate your article. He neglects to mention that while you may have missed one piece of information, the mainstream version of the story he likes so much better leaves out a whole lot more of the story.

09/26/2010 05:47 PM

The BIG difference here is Bowyer called out a couple of drivers – a normal every day occurrence…..Hamlin the three year old called out an entire organization…a big no-no.

09/26/2010 08:38 PM

Pot calling the kettle black. Denny drove for a team in late model that had a reputation for cheating. He was thrown out at South Boston and Kenly that I remember. At Kenly he had heads that were wrong on both CC and illegal porting, and a lot more obvious than this 1/64th we keep hearing about.

09/27/2010 03:00 PM

Good article Bryan! I’m wondering who asked motor mouth Hamlin to give his opinion at a press conference to begin with? Surely, nothing about RCR pertains to him or JGR! To say that 60/100ths in rear quarter height made a decisive aero difference is absurd imho! If Bowyer would have beaten Hamlin for the championship with an oversized engine, or illegal tires, I could understand his reasoning for calling RCR cheaters. His crying that RCR cheated their way into the Chase is unfair. I think justice could be served best out behind the woodshed with a knuckle sandwich from any of RCR’s drivers!