Denny Hamlin was doing what he needed to at Phoenix Raceway to earn a spot in the Championship 4.
But an “old” foe got the best of Hamlin, leading to a cut tire and crash on Lap 276 of 312 in the Can-Am 500. Racing for a top-five spot with Chase Elliott, the two made contact off Turn 4 as Elliott pinched Hamlin into the outside wall. The damage initially produced a tire rub, resulting in Hamlin later blowing a left-front tire and slamming the wall.
“I race people the way they race me.”- Chase Elliott
Was this payback for Martinsville? pic.twitter.com/dhlbUR5tMl
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) November 12, 2017
He finished 35th after leading 193 laps and winning the race’s first stage.
“We had a fast car all day. We did essentially our job all day long; we put ourselves in a good position,” Hamlin said. “Things just didn’t work out there at the end.”
It was a shocking turn of events for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Entering the day, Hamlin needed to erase a 19-point deficit to make a trip to Homestead and have a shot at the championship for the first time since 2014. Before the green flag, Hamlin expressed hope with a car he said was the best he’s had at Phoenix after a solid job by his team this weekend.
Having run in the top eight in all three practices, Hamlin qualified second and quickly established himself as one of the cars to beat. Finishing second in Stage 1 (earning nine points) and winning Stage 2 (earning 10 points), Hamlin was on even ground with Brad Keselowski, who held the final transfer spot, going into the third stage.
But after a red flag because of a crash and subsequent fire between the SAFER barrier and wall on Lap 253, the race began to change.
Keselowski was suddenly in the top 10 through differing pit strategy. And a restart shuffled the field to where Hamlin found himself in a tough battle with Elliott, who also wanted the final championship spot.
“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things, and it just proves to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin said of the contact from Elliott. “It’s part of racing. I got into him; he chose to retaliate. So, I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is.
“We did a great job all day. This is the best car I’ve had in a very long time, we just got behind on a pit stop, and that just gave those guys an opportunity to get close.”
After finishing second, Elliott expressed no remorse for nudging the driver he said wrecked him unnecessarily at Martinsville two weeks ago: “I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless. I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”
Phoenix was Hamlin’s fourth DNF of the season and second of the playoffs. Now eliminated from title contention, Hamlin will go into next season (his 13th full year) still seeking his first championship.
Asked if he puts title elimination on his shoulders because of what happened at Martinsville, Hamlin was resolute.
“Not really. No, I won’t,” Hamlin insisted. “We’ll do the best we can to go out there and win Homestead and make sure our competition doesn’t.”