Heading into this weekend’s event at Talladega Superspeedway, Denny Hamlin enters this weekend sitting seventh in points. If Hamlin can keep himself in the top eight in the standings, he will move on to the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. For that reason, Hamlin is looking to avoid the wrecks this weekend and get a good, solid finish.
“I tried a lot of different strategies here in the past — laying back, I was 34th on the white flag lap and had there not been a caution we would have finished in the 30s. We can’t afford a day like that,” Hamlin commented. “This season so far we’ve had a lot of success on these superspeedways by staying up front and running up front all day. I hope we can employ that same strategy, but if we’re in some kind of position that we don’t want to be in and feel like it’s kind of getting out of our control then we’ll hit the safe button for a while. We’ll just kind of see how it all plays out, but obviously we want to move on to the next round as I feel like the next round obviously lends itself great for our race team to move on. We’re going to keep battling.”
One of the variables that will be in play this weekend is qualifying, which NASCAR has introduced a new format. They will be sending the pack out in two different groups with top 24 combined times moving on to the next round, rather than the previous system. The deal is try and stop drivers from lagging back as they have done earlier this year. The drivers are still trying to figure out how to make it work, but Hamlin says his strategy is to just try and get in line and hope that something comes together to work.
“Qualifying, it honestly doesn’t mean a whole lot at this race track. When we won here in the spring we started in the very back so you can do it at this race track,” he notes. “It’s one of the few tracks that you can so we don’t put a whole lot of effort into that.”
The only deal with qualifying is it will set the tone for how Hamlin runs the race this weekend, and whether he stays up near the front or rides at the back.
“I think that if we are able to get a good qualifying spot it will allow me to try to stay up front, but if we get mauled in the center to back of the pack for qualifying, it will probably set the tone for how we run the first part of the race or at least until the first pit stop where we can kind of shuffle ourselves to the front through pit strategy or getting on and off pit road pretty quick and getting up to the front,” he explained. “I think that’s the one thing that will dictate for qualifying for us is our early race strategy.”
A good run would also help Hamlin put last weekend’s events in the background as he was one of the many drivers involved in the post-race activities surrounding Brad Keselowski. The pair made contact near the end of the race, before Keselowski got into Hamlin post-race. Then in the garage, Hamlin tried to go after Keselowski, though was restrained back by his team. It wasn’t the first incident between the pair as they have a history from when Keselowski first started racing in the Nationwide Series. Hamlin doesn’t have any regrets from last weekend, but notes that his team wouldn’t let him do anything – which was a bummer.
“The only thing I was trying to do in the garage and even on pit road was just box him in so I could get to him before his team guys got there,” he added. “I didn’t ram into him on pit road or anything like that, if you watch I just kept trying to box him in to where he couldn’t go anywhere and I talked to Brad and told him that. I don’t regret anything and I really didn’t feel like I did anything wrong. Obviously, from the penalties NASCAR didn’t feel like I did either.”
Hamlin says that Keselowski is “obviously a great talent” and has gotten better in handling situations of that nature over the years, but “last week was a bit of a step back for that”. However, Hamlin also acknowledges that people have bad weeks and “you go through it and you just move on”, hence why Hamlin is now focused on racing this weekend at Talladega for the championship.
Though with that said, the incident is not forgotten as Hamlin notes, “I think Brad knows where I stand and where the other drivers stand on how he’s been”.
The incident also won’t be forgotten by NASCAR, given the fact that Keselowski recieved a $50,000 fine for hitting both Hamlin on-track after the race and Kenseth coming on to pit road, while Tony Stewart received a fine of $25,000 for backing into Keselowski as they came on to pit road. In contrast, NASCAR didn’t fine Hamlin or Matt Kenseth, even though Kenseth tackled Keselowski between the haulers. Hamlin feels that the penalties were fair given each circumstance, and will bring enough discussion with what was said – even though people believe the fine isn’t a big deal due to not coming out of Keselowski’s pocket.
“That’s a big deal, and not only that but also I’m sure there was discussions in the hauler about this is our safe zone, safe area that there are fans and potential crew members around that we don’t — it’s kind of a zero tolerance policy inside that garage and on pit road,” Hamlin commented. “The message as far as Matt (Kenseth) is concerned, what else short of really just blindsiding and tackling him, how else are you going to get to him? There’s so many crew guys. They won’t let you talk to him. He kind of did what he had to do and really you really can’t see any punches or anything so yeah, as far as I’m concerned they were holding hands.”