LONG POND, Pa. — Away from the racetrack, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson are close friends. On the track, they are fierce competitors.
“What people don’t understand is you actually kind of race your buddies harder than you race others,” Hamlin said after Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 at Pocono Raceway. “It’s weird how it works out that way.”
On a restart with seven laps remaining, Hamlin pushed Kyle Larson, who was leading the race, clear of the inside lane. When the duo got to Turn 1, Hamlin made a move to the inside of Larson and put him in a bad spot for corner exit.
The end result was Larson hit the wall hard, all but ending his shot at the victory.
One more look at what everyone is talking about. pic.twitter.com/x8BeVoC8nw
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Hamlin stated he gave Larson enough room to have a lane and doesn’t think there was contact between the two cars. Larson thought otherwise.
“[Hamlin] knew that was going to be his only opportunity to beat me with how bad dirty air is,” Larson said. “I got used up.”
Earlier this season, the two drivers had a run-in on the final lap at Kansas Speedway while competing for the win. Hamlin came out on the better end of that race as well, scoring his first triumph of the season.
Over the years, Larson can recount multiple times where Hamlin has gotten the better of him. But this time felt different to the 2021 Cup Series champion, as he felt he didn’t have a shot to make it through Turn 1.
“We’ve had a handful of run-ins and I’ve never had to reach out to apologize,” Larson said. “He’s always been the one to reach out to me and be like, ‘Hey man, sorry, I messed up. Sorry, I put you in a bad spot – hurt your day.’ I’ve never had to do that to him.
“Maybe there have been times where he’s been frustrated with me, but I’ve never hurt his results. I should have at least got a top 10, but I finished [20th]. In my eyes, I could have 10 more playoff points, two more wins right now if it weren’t for the 11. I’m pissed and I should be.”
Hamlin countered that by saying Larson has run him off the road on road courses multiple times and apologized afterwards.
But Hamlin doesn’t feel the need to defend his position at Pocono. He felt the move was clean.
“I put both those guys, the 48 (Hamlin got Alex Bowman loose earlier in the race) and 5, in an aero situation,” Hamlin said. “Didn’t touch either one. How can you wreck someone you don’t touch?
“They make a decision to either let off the gas and race side by side, or hit the gas and hit the wall. I mean, I put them to those decisions. I didn’t overshoot the corner. I was behind. I tried to get position on him, knew it was going to be tight off of two, but always made sure I left a lane or more, more than a lane.”
Larson does think the two incidents from this season were different. The Kansas battle was racing hard for the win. On Sunday, he “didn’t get to race him” at all.
Knowing when enough is enough is something Larson can’t ponder. Hamlin has said multiple times in the past that Larson is known for putting his competitors in tough situations. But he believes he races his buddies differently.
“I’m an aggressive racer, I get it,” Larson said. “I tend to race my friends with more respect, but I feel like I haven’t gotten that respect from him, especially this year but even in the past.”
Hamlin did think he raced Larson with respect, though.
“We’re racing for the win. Are you shitting me?” Hamlin stated. “If I’m going to give anyone the respect, it’s Kyle Larson just because I respect him as a racecar driver, and I think he’s probably the best. Certainly, he’s got my respect. I guarantee you, roles reversed, it goes the same way.”
Neither driver believes what happens on the track will affect their off-track relationship. By the end of the week, they could be hanging out and have put Pocono behind them.
“If he were to call me and said ‘Let’s go golf on Wednesday,’ I would probably go golf,” Larson said. “He’s still my buddy, but I’m mad about the on-track stuff.”
The incident is now in the rearview and Hamlin ended the afternoon celebrating in Victory Lane for the 50th time in his Cup Series career and became the winningest driver at Pocono.