NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Denny, Gibbs, What Were You Thinking?

The biggest highlight of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race came not on the track, but on pit road following the checkered flag. Denny Hamlin, irritated after being spun in a late-race incident with Brad Keselowski, aggressively confronted the driver of the No. 88 on pit road immediately following the race and nearly triggered a melee similar to one instigated by the two following an incident at Charlotte in May 2008.

Interviewed later on ESPN, Hamlin remarked “I was just watching that idiot” when asked about Keselowski, ranting on about how he was a Cup Series washout waiting to happen, a youngster in need of guidance whose lack of Cup experience has left him “[not knowing] how to race.”

Well, it’s funny that Hamlin used the word “idiot” in his comments, because the only idiot involved in the whole episode on Saturday was – you guessed it – Hamlin himself.

Never mind that Hamlin acted like a hypocrite, chastising a fellow competitor for racing aggressively with him after he broke his winless streak in the No. 11 car at Pocono thanks in large part to running over both David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose. Never mind that Hamlin was apparently aloof to the fact that Keselowski’s line never changed during the incident: if you watch the replay, the No. 88 was square on the bottom line of the track, as evidenced by those in-car camera shots so clearly shown on ESPN. The car never bobbled even once as Hamlin’s No. 20 moved down the track across the No. 88’s nose. And never mind that somehow, Hamlin figured that the rules of give and take somehow applied to Keselowski backing out of the gas at the critical exit point of turn 2 to yield a top-five position with less than 15 laps to go.

Frankly, it was idiotic that Hamlin, one of the most emotionally frail drivers racing anywhere in NASCAR, even entered this race in the first place.

What is there to gain? It’s not like the No. 20 car needed a driver: Joey Logano has done an admirable job in the ride all season long and, unlike Hamlin, actually needs the extra seat time. JGR’s got plenty of development guys that could fill the seat as well, be it Brad Coleman or even Matt DiBenedetto, who ran the East Series race for JGR on Friday and even practiced the car (more on that in a minute). But instead, the organization put Hamlin in position to run a second race this weekend when the No. 11 team has a proven history of struggling at the Monster Mile.

And after the trials the No. 20 team endured yesterday, there was still a chance for JGR’s Cup driver to jump ship. After choosing to let DiBenedetto jump in during Nationwide Happy Hour yesterday (allowing Hamlin to focus on the Cup car, his real job), the youngster wrecked the primary machine and forced the No. 20 team to a backup. That left Hamlin on Saturday to jump into one stressful situation; qualify and race 200 miles in a car he had no laps in. What a fine way to spend a Saturday that saw Hamlin mired near the bottom of the top 20 on the Cup Happy Hour charts.

As for Hamlin’s comments following the incident, nothing there should really surprise anyone. Because if there’s one thing that’s known for sure regarding Hamlin’s attitude towards the Nationwide Series, it’s that he has nothing short of a huge superiority complex. Hamlin ironically proved that one year ago in his first dustup with Keselowski at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, spending his entire post-race interview railing about how Keselowski simply didn’t know how to race because he hadn’t yet made it to the big Cup stage that Hamlin, in his 20s, has apparently got all figured out.

So if there’s one sure thing that’s known about Hamlin in general, it’s that his mental state is about as safe as a hemophiliac in a cutlery store. Read: He is fragile.

This is the same Hamlin whose 2008 Chase run disintegrated into genuine driver depression about his team’s inconsistency. This is the same Hamlin who lost a surefire win at Martinsville and the most prized of all Virginia short-track trophies after being bumped out of the way by Jimmie Johnson, only to react in his post-race comments with resignation and defeatism. And this is the same Hamlin who now, only two weeks after securing a Chase berth in dramatic fashion by scoring the biggest win of his entire career (a Cup triumph at his home track, the Richmond International Raceway), has again completely unraveled in pursuit of stock car racing’s ultimate prize.

And, judging from his actions on Saturday, Hamlin has found himself completely unable to reconcile himself with the fact that in every NASCAR series, be it Cup or Nationwide, there are 42 other drivers out there that also “know how to race,” whether they’ve met Hamlin’s standard of approval in the Cup ranks or not.

The No. 11 car is far from the front of the Cup field heading into Sunday and round two of the Chase. Dover has been anything but kind to Hamlin, as his average finish in the last four Dover races is a woeful 38.7. And with his emotions already running high, Hamlin took to the track Saturday to race against 42 drivers who were decidedly not points racing: Since JGR teammate Kyle Busch has made a laughingstock of that title Chase, there is no reason for anyone in the Nationwide ranks to stroke it at this point in the season. The chances for a wreck, a frustrating day, or in this case both, were high at a treacherous track known for beating and banging.

In short, Saturday’s race was about the worst place for a mentally fragile driver to be. And yet, there Hamlin was.

So who’s the real idiot? Here’s a hint… it wasn’t the driver of the No. 88.

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