Hamlin Fights Off One Rival, but Has Three More to Beat

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Joey Logano will not repeat as champion when NASCAR’s top racing series holds its season finale on Sunday. His nemesis, Denny Hamlin, took care of that.

First, on the final weekend in October, Hamlin sandwiched Logano into the wall late in a race at Martinsville, Va. Logano entered the race with a chance to claim a spot as one of the four finalists for the series championship but instead finished a disappointing eighth. An incensed Logano confronted Hamlin after the race, and a brawl ensued.


Logano vs. Hamlin: pic.twitter.com/D3HNVsDJsW

Then, in the season’s penultimate race in Phoenix last weekend, Hamlin came from behind to post a must-win victory. Logano, who had entered the race with a significant points lead for the final spot to race for the title, led early but faded from the picture with a mechanical problem, finishing ninth.

Those results guaranteed that Hamlin, whose only path to the title had been through a win in Phoenix, would battle Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick for the series championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While all the series drivers will take the track at Homestead, only the highest finisher of those four will be able to claim the playoff title.

Logano, the defending champion and Hamlin’s bitter rival and former teammate, has been reduced to the role of spoiler.

Whether their feud is over for this season is unclear. Their grievances date back to when they were teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing early in their careers. They have battled on tracks around the country almost since the day Logano left the Gibbs team in 2012: blocking, short-braking, pushing, ramming.

Hamlin and Logano crashed into each other at an early 2013 season race at Martinsville, and again at Ontario, Calif., a week later. In the latter melee, in which Logano and Hamlin were racing side by side on the last lap for the win — each refusing to give an inch — Hamlin slid into a retaining wall at high speed and broke his back. His chronic pain serves a constant reminder of his rivalry with Logano.

“I had back problems before that,” he said, “and that just made it worse.”

Logano and Hamlin have been in so many altercations over the years, in fact, that NASCAR has posted a timeline of their altercations and incidents on its website. Until Martinsville a few weeks ago, the Hamlin-Logano pot seemed to be simmering quietly. But it never takes much heat to bring it back to a full boil.

Whether the feud is over for this season is unclear. Logano hinted recently that “I still owe Denny one” — possibly a reference to the Martinsville incident. But Truex had threatened to retaliate against Logano after being eliminated from the playoffs in similar circumstances on the eve of last year’s finale, but he never followed through.

When Hamlin’s 2019 season began, it hardly had the look of a championship campaign. He was winless in 46 races, a drought that dated to the 2017 season, while his Gibbs teammates Truex and Busch were enjoying regular checkered flags.

Even Hamlin’s job security seemed shaky. His friend and the inspirational leader on the team, the co-owner J.D. Gibbs, had died in January, and Hamlin had been assigned a rookie crew chief to oversee his car this year.

Hamlin turned his fortunes around almost immediately with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500, and that new crew chief, Chris Gabehart, soon proved to be a steadying influence. At Phoenix, Hamlin, who has squandered multiple chances to win a championship in past years, was asked at a news conference whether he would be O.K. with trading years of consistent victories for a single-season championship.

“Maybe race wins are better than a championship,” he conceded.

When he got back to the garage, though, Gabehart set him straight.

“Never have that mind-set!” Gabehart said. “Get that defeatist attitude out of your head!”

When a late caution jeopardized his chances at victory during the Phoenix race — when nothing less than a victory would clinch Hamlin a berth to the Final 4 — an in-car camera shot showed Hamlin banging his steering wheel in frustration.

Gabehart quickly got on the radio, calmly reassuring Hamlin. “You can do this,” he repeated. “You will do this. Finish it.” And Hamlin did.

“In the past, things like that might have unraveled him,” Gabehart said. “He trusts in his experience more now. He’s been there, done that, and done it wrong. He’s learned.”

Now he only needs to finish ahead of Truex, Busch and Harvick on Sunday. A Florida native, Hamlin, who turns 39 Monday and has six wins this season, could be considered a slight favorite at Homestead, even though he is the only one of the finalists never to have won a series title.

One thing he and the other three will know, though, is that since the new format was introduced in 2014, it has taken nothing less than victory in the finale every year to become NASCAR’s champion.

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