Everything was going Denny Hamlin’s way Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. He had a fast car and accompanied with Brad Keselowski’s struggles, Hamlin was seemingly set to earn himself a spot in the Cup Series championship final.
Then it all unraveled with about 50 laps remaining. Contact with Chase Elliott as they raced for position saw Elliott nudge Hamlin into the wall off Turn 4, damaging Hamlin’s Toyota and creating a pronounced tire rub.
Seven laps later that rub caused a tire failure, sending Hamlin crashing into the outside wall. Hamlin finished 35th, eliminating any chance he had of advancing to the championship round.
That it was Elliott who ended his promising day -- Hamlin led 193 of the 275 laps he completed -- wasn’t lost on Hamlin, who had deliberately crashed Elliott as they battled for the lead two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway. Elliott ended up crashing and losing a shot at his first-career-win, a victory that would’ve locked into the championship race.
“Each person had their own opinion of how they do things and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “It’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”
In the aftermath of Hamlin wrecking Elliott, the veteran issued an apology on social media stating he regretted his actions and that isn’t how he typically races. Hamlin also said later he wasn’t concerned about Elliott seeking payback and he was focused solely on winning a championship.
But Elliott didn’t forget the altercation nor did his frustration subside in the days and weeks since. And the second-year driver made his displeasure known Sunday as he cut Hamlin no slack as they raced for position, including moving Hamlin up the track and into the frontstretch wall.
“I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” Hamlin said. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”
Elliott finished second to Matt Kenseth Sunday, missing out on winning a race he needed to avoid playoff elimination. Kenseth passed Elliott with 10 laps, then drove away to take the checkered flag.
Along with Elliott and Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson were knocked out of the playoffs at Phoenix, the last of three races within the semifinal round. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. all qualified for the champion final next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Elliott has now finished runner-up seven times in 76 Cup Series starts -- including five this season.
“It’s just such a bummer,” Elliott said. “I was telling my guys we’ll get it right someday, or I’ll get it right someday. We’ve had so many good opportunities and at some point, we’ve just got to close.”