Hamlin made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2005, and has had a front row seat to how the racing has evolved over the last two decades.
Due to the emergence of more assertive drivers in the racing community, the presence of cars that hinder passing opportunities, and a playoff structure that prioritizes victories above all else, experienced drivers have been compelled to alter their approach to race weekends.
Hamlin has won 50 Cup races during his career. Both of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s 2023 victories have come at the expense of Kyle Larson, who ended up in the outside wall after contact with Hamlin in both races.
In previous times, Hamlin has not hesitated to criticize other drivers for their aggressive driving, gaining notoriety for his ongoing feud with Ross Chastain over the last couple of years. Hamlin faced consequences when he openly confessed to intentionally causing Chastain to hit the wall at Phoenix in March.
Speaking on how the racing has changed at the top level of the sport, Hamlin said: “I think it’s 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.
“I long for a return to those previous times, but our current situation does not allow it. It is necessary to adjust to our present circumstances. Either we adapt or face failure. Personally, I have chosen to become more assertive in recent years, as I have experienced the consequences of passivity. It is difficult to fault those who act aggressively, particularly in a situation where victory is at stake. It is certainly disheartening when someone intentionally causes a collision or forcefully hits you from behind, resulting in a spin-out and collision with the wall.”
Racing for victory has evolved significantly over time. The dynamics have changed, with aggression being the key determinant of success. If one driver is aggressive while the other is not, the aggressive driver will always come out on top. This is simply a matter of fact. It is rare to find two drivers who are both “nice guys” at the end of races nowadays. One driver must push themselves to the next level and show their desire to win. In situations where both drivers are equally determined, conflicts arise, resulting in intense competition. This is a thrilling spectacle for race fans, as they get to witness the action and passion they crave.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Toyota Camry, Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro
Photo by: Jasen Vinlove / NKP / Motorsport Images
Hamlin actually cites his many run-ins with Chastain as a catalyst for changing his own mindset on the track.
“Honestly, I think it was after the Chastain thing for sure,” admitted Hamlin. “Certainly, I was very vocal that I need to do something, I need to do something. At the time, the scales were like three to nothing. 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.
“Certainly, 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 met 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.”
Not only was the victory Hamlin’s 50th as a Cup driver, but it was also his record-setting seventh at Pocono and Toyota’s 600th in NASCAR.
Larson, who is close friends with Hamlin off the track, finished 20th. But if he could go back and do it all over again, would Hamlin do anything differently?
“I mean, it’s really hard to say that you would do anything different,” said 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.
“Certainly, I didn’t like the outcome for him. I wish he could have finished second, but it was just one of those things where we flat ran out of room and I made a split-second decision to try to clear him instantly, and you can see from my on-board that I don’t see him. I see him go up the track, and I don’t know where he’s at when I start to throttle up and I’m saying ‘alright, I’m going to clear him.’ But when I didn’t, I knew we were going to be in a bad spot.”