NASCAR: Kyle Larson is between a rock and a hard place

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) /

Kyle Larson has said that he needs to race Denny Hamlin differently after their incident in last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race, but that is easier said than done.

While battling for the win in last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin ran Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson wide and made contact with the No. 5 Chevrolet coming out of turn one, sending Larson into the wall and ruining his race.

To the tune of tens of thousands of boos, Hamlin went on to win for a record-breaking seventh time at the Tricky Triangle, while the fan-favorite Larson placed 20th.

Hamlin’s move was similar to the one he pulled on Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain at the same track in the same turn and at the same stage of the race last year, and that move also ruined Chastain’s race.

Larson said after the race that he needs to race Hamlin differently, because there have now been multiple occasions on which Hamlin has needed to apologize to him for the way he has raced him. Larson couldn’t recall any occasions on which roles were reversed.

He also added that he doesn’t want to jeopardize the friendship that the two have away from the race track, but even that has been taken the wrong way in the past.

Think back to Auto Club Speedway in 2020, one of Larson’s final races with Chip Ganassi Racing. Hamlin made contact with Larson and effectively ruined his race, then he made fun of the move during the week by running into Larson with a shopping cart. Chip Ganassi saw nothing funny about it.

But as far as actually racing Denny Hamlin differently, that puts Kyle Larson in a bit of a precarious position.

Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway was not a case of Hamlin being unrepentant and taking a “yeah I hit him, what about it?” attitude we have seen drivers, including Hamlin, display in the past.

Let’s not forget the fact that NASCAR docked him 25 points the last time he was honest about making contact with another driver on the race track and ruining his race.

Hamlin literally denied making contact with the No. 5 Chevrolet, even though it was clear that contact occurred.

As Larson said, “Denny is always right”. He can race everybody else hard, and in some cases dirty — and in some cases deny it — but when you do it to him, Actions Detrimental turns into Racing Etiquette 101 with “these guys need to learn their lesson” sound clips, and that ultimately ends up in Hamlin retaliating.

So what more can Larson do? Can he take a page out of his teammates’ playbook?

Look at Hendrick Motorsports’ other three drivers: Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron. All three have, at some point, been raced “dirty” by Hamlin in recent years. And all three, at some point, have retaliated, some in harsher ways than others.

It really becomes all about not being taken advantage of. If Hamlin is comfortable racing Larson the way he races him, Larson needs to do something about it to change it.

If that means sending him into the wall at a short track, so be it. Hamlin has done worse.

And let’s get one thing out of the way here. While his fanbase cannot fathom that not everybody worships their dirt track idol and he can do no wrong, I’m going to go out on a limb and agree with Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart that Larson, for whatever reason, definitely gets a pass for moves that result in harsh criticism when others pull them off.

Actually, that’s not really going out on much of a limb; historically, it’s a fact.

Just look at Darlington Raceway back in May. On two occasions, Larson and Chastain restarted on the front row. When Chastain raced Larson hard off of turn two, he was criticized. When the roles were reversed and Larson actually forced Chastain even closer to the wall, it was “hard racing”.

Of course, we all saw what happened on restart number three; that was 100% on Chastain for ruining both of their races.

Bottom line, I’m not here to defend Larson, and I can list several other examples of the like.

But at Pocono Raceway, there is no doubt that he was in the right, not necessarily because Hamlin raced him “dirty”, but because Hamlin totally denied any wrongdoing/contact when the contact between the two was obvious. Hamlin was called out by others in the NASCAR world afterward for blatant hypocrisy, and that criticism was appropriate.

FanDuel Sportsbook, which is offering fans $100 just for betting $5, lists Larson as the second favorite to win this year’s championship at +600, with Hamlin listed fifth at +800.

Odds and availability are subject to change. Lock in your $100 today before it’s too late!

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So how can Larson respond? Can he do anything on the race track without making himself a future target of Hamlin, whose posturing as a “victim” makes it difficult to approach him with retaliation in mind?