Denny Hamlin sits with Joey Logano atop the Chase Grid going into the Eliminator Round finale this Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Wanting to join him on the good side of the cutoff for advancement to the Sprint Cup Championship Race is Brad Keselowski, who finished third at Texas last weekend and also got into his second post-race scrap in four weeks with Jeff Gordon.
Hamlin was involved in the first one at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when he took umbrage with Keselowski’s hard racing over the final two laps of that race by brake-checking him on the cool-down lap. Hamlin eventually chased Keselowski through the garage, but it was Matt Kenseth who ultimately got to the Team Penske driver first.
Needless to say, Keselowski isn’t likely to be on many of his peers’ Christmas card lists. But he could be up for being paid back during Sunday’s race at Phoenix if the likes of Kenseth, Gordon, or Kevin Harvick (whose pushing Keselowski in the back helped ignite the Texas brawl) are having a bad day on the track.
In Hamlin’s eyes, Keselowski’s aggressive driving tactics are not the problem. The problem is he isn’t showing any sympathy after he uses them.
“He has a right to feel the way he feels, but when there’s no accountability…they’re gonna be upset with him,” Hamlin said during today’s NASCAR teleconference. “You just have to expect it. It’s tough to win a championship if nobody likes you. That is going to be a very tough task.
“I think he’s gonna have to watch the mirror, and that’s a tough way to race. I learned that the very hard way, but everyone’s on their own agenda. Brad’s got his agenda and he’s entitled to that.
“We’ve all gotta do the best we can but if we have a bad day, this is typically the point of the season where people get back at each other if they feel like they’ve been done wrong.”
Hamlin went on to say that while Keselowski doesn’t have to apologize for who he is, his lack of remorse regarding his contact with Gordon during the first green-white-checkered attempt at Texas (which caused Gordon to fall back before he spun with a tire failure and finishing 29th as a result) escalated the post-race situation.
“That just lights a fire in your insides, especially when you’ve had a bad day and your season could’ve rested on that one mistake or whatever you wanna call it,” he said. “If Brad would have talked to Jeff and said, ‘Man, I was going for a hole, it’s my only chance and I’m really sorry it cut your tire,’ I think that goes totally different. Instead, it was, ‘Meh, oh well, sorry, bud, you left the hole.'”
To Hamlin, it’s that lack of respect that has made Keselowski a lone wolf in the garage. Hamlin knows all too well what it’s like to be regarded as such.
In 2007, Hamlin had a heart-to-heart with Kyle Petty following an incident between the two at Dover that saw Hamlin put Petty in the wall.
While Hamlin sat inside his own damaged car in the garage, Petty pulled down his window net and swatted Hamlin’s helmet. And during their sit-down, Petty informed Hamlin of how scores of drivers had called him with praise for that gesture.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘Wait a minute – no other drivers like me?,'” Hamlin recalled. “You know, some people care about that and some people don’t. But immediately, I was like, ‘Well, that’s not something I want. I don’t want to be a driver that has zero respect from my peers. I want to be someone who other drivers look up to.'”
Right now, Hamlin doesn’t see Keselowski being that guy, even though he’s won a Sprint Cup title and races for one of the top teams in the sport.
“He’s got a lot of good things going for him. But in my opinion, and I want to stress my opinion…what I think is he’s just got to work on the respect factor from his peers,” he said.