NASCAR dug themselves a bigger hole with Denny Hamlin penalty

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

With Denny Hamlin’s penalty, NASCAR has once again shown that you have to admit intent in order to be penalized for an otherwise questionable maneuver.

With the Hendrick Motorsports drivers who sat in first, fourth, and a fifth place tie in the NASCAR Cup Series standings all having been docked 100 points after NASCAR confiscated their hood louvers on Friday and later discovered that they had been illegally modified, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin was set to move up from seventh to fourth in the standings.

Instead, he has dropped to 12th place.

Late in Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin and Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain were both running in the top 10. But Hamlin and Chastain have a history, and Hamlin has been vocal about some of the younger drivers needing to “learn a lesson”.

Hamlin, who believed that he was going to lose multiple positions due to being on older tires, felt that this was an opportune time to get back at Chastain for some of the past incidents that have gone down between the two, given the fact that no “innocent bystanders” would be affected.

Knowing that he wasn’t going to finish in the top 10 with his No. 11 Toyota plowing the way it was, he decided to take Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet with him, sending it into the wall. Hamlin finished in 23rd place with Chastain in 24th.

The move knocked Chastain out of the points lead, and it wasn’t initially on NASCAR’s radar. But during the week, Hamlin admitted that he intentionally ruined Chastain’s race, resulting in NASCAR docking him 25 points and fining him $50,000.

All NASCAR has done by penalizing Denny Hamlin is dug themselves a bigger hole moving forward.

The fact that they are penalizing the admission of intent, not the action itself, is sure to be on the radar of drivers moving forward, and it will certainly be interesting to see where a line is drawn when it comes to contact between two cars that results in something negative for one and/or both.

NASCAR did something similar in 2019, when Bubba Wallace intentionally spun out at Texas Motor Speedway late in a round of 8 playoff race because he had a tire going down, thus manipulating the outcome of the event. He wasn’t penalized until he admitted he did it on purpose.

In 2021, Kyle Busch did something similar in a Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His response when asked to discuss it? “Nope. nope. nope.” It wasn’t hard to figure out why that was his answer. Then last year at Auto Club Speedway, Chase Elliott also didn’t elaborate after his late spin.

Later in the year at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR (somehow) totally missed William Byron retaliating against Hamlin under caution. While Byron claimed he didn’t mean to spin Hamlin out, he admitted that he was aiming for retaliation.

Unsurprisingly, Byron was later penalized, though that penalty was later modified simply because, had NASCAR been paying attention and officiated the move properly, a far less severe penalty would have been issued.

Long story short, good luck getting anybody to admit anything moving forward.

The lone true exception within the last few years as far as NASCAR actually dropping the hammer on a driver for an on-track action as opposed to an admission of intent happened in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, when Wallace egregiously wrecked Kyle Larson.

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Wallace never admitted it and even lashed out at a reporter for “fishing”, but the obvious intent and the dangerous nature of the move led NASCAR to suspend him, something they hadn’t done to a Cup Series driver since 2015.