Inspired by Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin gets leg up in friction with Corey LaJoie

Pat DeCola
NASCAR.com

Denny Hamlin hit ’em with the MJ shrug.

Moments after being handed the checkered flag he earned in Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400, the now 40-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner deployed a real-life ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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On the surface, it was a nod to the signature expression of Hamlin’s friend and business partner, NBA legend Michael Jordan (although that’s semi-debatable, given the most prominent shrug GIF now belongs to Jordan’s longtime security guard John Michael Wozniak, as depicted below).

Dig a little deeper, however, and Hamlin alluded to the shrug being, perhaps, a hat-tip of sorts to a tiff with fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver Corey LaJoie.

The strange-yet-entertaining feud — is it even a feud? — between Hamlin and LaJoie elevated again Friday night as LaJoie took a shot at Hamlin’s championship-race performance at Homestead-Miami Speedway in advance of Sunday’s race at the 1.5-mile track.

The spilled-over frustrations came on the heels of a series of Twitter exchanges after races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. What appeared to be a good-natured debate at first between the two ended with a few jabs being thrown before LaJoie added an uppercut into the mix.

“(Hamlin is) starting on the pole at Homestead and he’s probably going to run good,” LaJoie said on a bonus episode of his MRN podcast Sunday Money. “Because, A., it’s not the season finale, he’s not racing for a championship, so the pressure’s not on so he actually might be able to win at Homestead.”

During one of several race delays for lightning on Sunday, LaJoie was asked about the relationship and his comments.

“I mean, I think it all kind of started with the iRacing stuff,” LaJoie said on the FOX Sports telecast. “He kind of threw a shot, and I backed it up jumping on there. Then, just like anything, it escalates, right? And one thing gets personal, the next thing gets personal and then you both say things that you probably regret. But I’m going to stand up for what I believe in, and I believe in my abilities as a race car driver. I believe in the value I can bring to a race team, and I feel like somebody with his amount of talent and the amount of wins he has, I felt like he was throwing a little bit of shade at me — so I had to stick up for myself, stick up for my team.

“I think we’re both content to move on, we both have bigger fish to fry and we both have a lot at stake. Denny’s obviously going to be racing for championships and lots of wins, and I’m racing for a good result for my team each and every week as well.”

Hamlin was the dominant driver on Sunday, leading 137 laps and sweeping the stages for his third win of 2020 and second since NASCAR resumed its season last month at Darlington Raceway. LaJoie, driving for a smaller organization in Go Fas Racing, finished 29th and off the lead lap.

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As if the shrug wasn’t enough, Hamlin really drove the stake in a little deeper once he was back in command of his phone, firing off a simple Conor McGregor GIF tweet.

LaJoie responded quickly, choosing to let Floyd Mayweather — who famously, handily defeated MacGregor in a boxing match in 2017 — do some of the talking.

Hamlin was asked about the beef in his post-race media availability and needless to say, that Jordan brand sponsorship Jumpman logo is on the right fire suit.

“I knew (Jordan) was watching. I looked and he was one of the first guys to text me. Why not (do the shrug?),” Hamlin said. “After a performance like that, after a (expletive) one we had last week, might as well live it up a little bit.

“I mean, I’m motivated. I’m motivated more than ever. Like I said to my crew chief (Chris Gabehart), no matter what is said on social media, he’s always going to get the best out of me. Sometimes — sometimes — like MJ said, you find a way to motivate yourself. Certainly, there was a little extra motivation.”

Something tells us there are more coals to burn on this fire, but in the meantime Hamlin explained some more of the context as to why things escalated and where things stand now.

“I know Corey enough, like I said to him, to mess with him. I only mess with the people I like. I don’t mess with the people I don’t like. I think he was sensitive to what I was saying, made some remarks that were pretty sensitive to me,” said Hamlin. “I understand his stance and he understands mine. Mine was to win the races I’ve won, I didn’t have the best car every time. I still have to go out and beat probably some of the best drivers in history that drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart‑Haas and Penske.

“No one gave me anything. My parents had nothing, like nothing nothing. I got here the old-fashioned way. Any time you feel like anyone says, ‘Hey, if I had what you had, I could do that,’ it’s offensive. It’s a little offensive because you know personally how hard you worked to get there.

“I took offense to it. He took offense to the things that I said. I understand it was a miss ‑‑ just kind of two guys that were talking about some sensitive subjects. I think we’re OK now.”

Stay tuned to this one, folks, and see if things continue a week from now at Talladega Superspeedway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, FOX), where Hamlin won in 2014 and LaJoie notched one of his three career top-10 finishes last fall.

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