NASCAR America: Why did Denny Hamlin battle Chase Elliott late in the race when he didn’t have to?

Jerry Bonkowski
NBC Sports

Had he stayed on track and on focus, Denny Hamlin woulda, coulda, shoulda wound up with the final Championship 4 berth last weekend at Phoenix.

But he didn’t and it cost him possibly his first Cup championship.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan broke down what happened in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

They discussed why, when Hamlin was ahead of Brad Keselowski, who was the only driver he should have worried about when it came to Hamlin’s hopes to reach the title race via points, he chose instead to race Chase Elliott for third place with less than 50 laps left.

Elliott had to win to advance. As long as he didn’t and Hamlin remained ahead of Keselowski, Hamlin would take the final transfer spot.


Instead, Hamlin raced Elliott. The result was Elliott moved Hamlin up the track, forcing Hamlin into the wall in what many portrayed as payback for Hamlin wrecking Elliott out of the lead two weeks ago at Martinsville. The contact at Phoenix led to a cut tire and sent Hamlin into the wall, ending his race and title hopes.

Here is what our analysts had to say (watch the video above for all their comments on the incident).

Dale Jarrett:

“Why was (Hamlin) even putting up a battle with someone, who we knew there was potential because just a few short weeks ago that things escalated to a bad situation at Martinsville with him? So why would you race that person when it didn’t make any difference?

“(Hamlin) goes out in the first two stages and does everything he needs to do, he’s doing well in the third stage. By then, he had set himself up to where all he had to do was beat (Keselowski). So I don’t understand why he was letting the (Elliott) affect him. If (Elliott) was going to pass him and go on to win the race, he couldn’t do anything there, so just focus on (Keselowski).

“I don’t understand why they weren’t telling Denny more that this isn’t your battle, the battle is still behind you and that’s all you have to worry about.”

Nate Ryan:

“There wasn’t a lot of communication telling Denny that Brad Keselowski is behind you. At that point, Brad had just catapulted into the top 10 due to some shrewd strategy by his crew chief, Paul Wolfe. … He got from the mid-teens into the top 10 and he was in Denny Hamlin’s mirror for the first time all race.

“I think he also had on his mind probably that he’s battling Chase Elliott for third and Chase is fast. If Elliott gets past him and gets the win, then it’s game over either way and Denny has no shot at advancing by points.”

Jeff Burton:

“What really confuses me is that there were comments on social media that Denny was trying to let Chase go.  … I don’t possibly see how that’s accurate. When you come off a corner side-by-side with a guy at a tight racetrack, that’s not letting the guy go.

“There was a bigger picture. Chase and Denny had two completely different agendas at this point in the race. Chase really had nothing to lose. If Chase didn’t win this race, he was not going to move forward.

“Denny didn’t have to win the race because of the great job he did in the first two stages. I just don’t think Denny and the 11 team didn’t respond to the great work they did in the first two stages. They didn’t need to race Chase, they just needed to let him go. Once (Elliott) is underneath you, just get on the brakes and slow down and let him go. I’m sorry, it’s not that hard.

“If you think you’re better than (Keselowski)) and you’re still racing (Elliott), that was not a good decision.”

 

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