By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
The contact between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson shook the packed grandstands of Pocono Raceway. Shadows of their run-in two months ago in Kansas mixed with this very race one year ago between Hamlin and rival Ross Chastain.
Whichever prior incident comes to one’s mind, Sunday’s dramatic ending hit everywhere hard following what was a topsy-turvy 400-miler in PA.
For Larson, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was more than open to discuss his feelings toward Hamlin, who’s a close friend outside the racetrack.
“I mean, he gave me a really good push down the frontstretch and I was nervous of the move because he made it work on Ross [Chastain] last year and he dirtied him up. He knows,” Larson said. “And Ross deserved it last year for all the times that he got into Denny.
“I felt like I deserved to be raced with respect, at least through Turn 1. But he knew that was going to be his only opportunity to beat me, how [with] bad dirty air was. So I got used up. Just unfortunate. I feel like we’ve had a handful of run ins.”
Though Hamlin countered Larson’s claim that the No. 11 has always been on the ‘giving’ end of contact, Larson doesn’t want to hear an apology this time — he doesn’t even need one.
“I’ve never had to reach out to apologize,” he said. “He’s always been the one that’s reached out to me and been like, ‘Hey man, sorry I messed up there a little bit, or sorry put you in a bad spot. 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.”
“I’m sure he’ll say some dumb stuff on Monday night or whatever and I’ll get more mad for a little while and then I’ll eventually get over it. I don’t need an apology.”
Larson was among the top dogs throughout the day in Pocono, leading the second-most laps on the day (24) and being in prime contention to grab his first non-short track victory of 2023.
Restarting P1, Larson received a big push from fourth-palce Hamlin before the No. 11 darted low to enter Turn 1 side-by-side. At the exit of the corner, the two came together, leading Larson’s No. 5 to bounce off the outside wall.
Hamlin won, Larson limped to 20th.
“I’m pissed. I should be. I didn’t lift. Look at SMT. Look at SMT,” he said. “I should have at least been top two. I finished [20th]. In my eyes, hey, I could have ten more playoff points, two more wins right now if not for the No. 11.”
The first of those two lost wins was at Kansas in May, an incident Larson actually draws contrast to.
“The Kansas deal is more racing, for sure,” he said. “I would have loved to got to race him. Today, I didn’t even get to race him. He ran into me before I ever hit the wall. And we all know the aero stuff that goes on when somebody gets that close to you. His hood flaps were up. I mean, he was touching me before he ever got to the exit.”
With a friendship seemingly on the edge, Larson explains how we can separate personal from professional, even in the most heated of competitions.
“I’m not going to let it — obviously it’s awkward or it will be awkward. But on-track stuff is on-track stuff,” he said. “I feel like I can do a good job of separating on-track from off-track. He’s still a friend. Races me like asshole, but still a friend.
“I’m just mad right now. I’m sure he’ll say some dumb stuff on Monday night or whatever and I’ll get more mad for a little while and then I’ll eventually get over it. I don’t need an apology. Who knows? He might not be sorry, and I don’t want him to say sorry if he’s not sorry.
“It just is what it is. If he was to call me and say, ‘Hey, let’s go golf on Wednesday’, I’d probably go golf. He’s still my buddy. But I’m obviously mad about the on-track stuff, so yeah, it’s just whatever.”
Even being in contention to win was in doubt early in the race when Larson spun in Turn 1 to bring out the race’s fifth of 11 total cautions on Lap 47.
As the strategy played its hand and late-race cautions jumbled the field, Larson stayed in the fight until the Hamlin contact. For Larson, he leaves Pocono proud of his team.
“I’m extremely proud of the team for getting us back in position to even race for the win,” he said. “Pocono is a God awful, boring racetrack. It sucks. But the strategy behind it is a lot of fun. There’s three or four different strategies going on throughout the race, and my team did a really good job to play this strategy right.
“And I think that’s what makes this place fun. And you have to execute from start to finish, and even if you have a hiccup like we did early on, you can overcome it through different strategies. We executed the strategy and had a shot. So that’s great. Really proud of the team.”