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NASCAR Cup Richmond II

Hamlin on modern NASCAR: "You adapt or you die"

Still facing the criticism over his controversial pass for the win at Pocono, Denny Hamlin talked about how driver etiquette has changed in modern NASCAR, declaring that one must 'adapt or die.'

Hamlin made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2005, and has had a front row seat to how the racing has evolved over the last two decades.

With more aggressive drivers coming up through the ranks, cars that have made passing increasingly difficult, and a playoff format that rewards winning over anything else, veteran drivers have been forced to change the way they approach race weekends.

Hamlin has won 50 Cup races during his career. Both of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's 2023 victories have come at the expense of Kyle Larson, who ended up in the outside wall after contact with Hamlin in both races.

In the past, Hamlin has not hesitated to call out other drivers for aggressive driving, infamously feuding with Ross Chastain over the past two seasons. Hamlin was actually penalized after admitting to intentionally walling Chastain at Phoenix in March.

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Speaking on how the racing has changed at the top level of the sport, Hamlin said: “I think it’s just different now. The cars are closer together. Passing is more difficult than it’s ever been. Even Mark Martin would have to adjust his style in this type of car, because the days of the gentleman letting the guys go and you will just go and get them later – it’s just a different game these days.

"I wish we could go back to those days, but that is not where we are at. You have to adapt to where you are at. You adapt or you die. Certainly, I feel like over the last few years, I’ve decided to be more aggressive because I’ve got used up by aggressive and it is hard to blame them at the time – especially in a race winning situation. Certainly, you are upset when someone right rear hooks you or runs right in the back of you in stage one and spins you out and puts you in the wall.

"That’s one thing, racing for the win is certainly a lot different than it has been in the past. If you have one person willing to be aggressive and one person not, aggressive will win every time. It’s just the facts of it. Usually, you are not going to find two guys that are the nice guy at the end of these races anymore. Someone has to take it the next level to want it, and then if you have two guys that really want it, you have what you had at Darlington where this person is squeezed, well the next restart, now that person is squeezed. That is just what happens. I’m adamant that is when the race fans win. That is when they get to see the action and the passion they want to see.”

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Toyota Camry, Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Toyota Camry, Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Jasen Vinlove / NKP / Motorsport Images

Hamlin actually cites his many run-ins with Chastain as a catalyst for changing his own mindset on the track.

“Honestly, I think it was after the Chastain thing for sure," admitted Hamlin. "Certainly, I was very vocal that I need to do something, I need to do something. At the time, the scales were like three to nothing. I was very frustrated. My team was very frustrated at me for not doing anything. The mindset has just changed. You have to put it out there that you are going to be aggressive. I think if a guy is going to run into you, you are going to run right back into him. That’s the way I’ve got to change things from this point forward because for the most part it has been tough results for us at the end of races, especially the last three years. I’ve been spun out of the lead three times. That’s really, really tough, so I just said it's time to be more aggressive.

"Certainly, hate that it came at Kyle’s [Larson] expense, for sure. If there is anyone that I should protect, it’s those guys and my teammates. The win just met a lot to me at the time. I made an attempt to pass him, and it didn’t happen the way I intended for sure.”

Not only was the victory Hamlin's 50th as a Cup driver, but it was also his record-setting seventh at Pocono and Toyota's 600th in NASCAR. 

Larson, who is close friends with Hamlin off the track, finished 20th. But if he could go back and do it all over again, would Hamlin do anything differently? 

“I mean, it’s really hard to say that you would do anything different," said Hamlin. "It is so split second. The win meant so much to me at that time. So many different records that we could accomplish with that one win – with the track, with Toyota, with myself personally – it’s hard to say in that moment that I would do anything different for sure.

"Certainly, I didn’t like the outcome for him. I wish he could have finished second, but it was just one of those things where we flat ran out of room and I made a split-second decision to try to clear him instantly, and you can see from my on-board that I don’t see him. I see him go up the track, and I don’t know where he’s at when I start to throttle up and I’m saying ‘alright, I’m going to clear him.’ But when I didn’t, I knew we were going to be in a bad spot.” 

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