By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – Winless on the season, Denny Hamlin looked to be on his way to his first victory of the season Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before a late race run-in with rookie Chase Briscoe derailed his day.
After a debris caution with 10 laps to go brought pit strategy into play, Hamlin’s team elected to stay out instead of making the trek down pit road with the remainder of the leaders, boosting him into the lead, where he would stay through the two multi-car crashes that eventually pushed the race into overtime.
On the second overtime restart, Hamlin led the field into Turn 1, with Briscoe challenging to his outside and AJ Allmendinger challenging to the inside. Contact between the three sent Briscoe out into the grass, but he was able to keep it in the throttle and reemerged back on track in front of Hamlin before Hamlin was able to get back by him in the next set of corners.
Briscoe would be penalized by NASCAR for the off-track excursion, but kept on racing like nothing had happened. Later on in the lap, Briscoe put the bumper to Hamlin, spinning him out from the lead and dashing his chances of finally winning a race in 2021 and finally erasing the goose-egg from the win column at Indianapolis.
Hamlin would get his car righted and returned to the track, but the damage had already been done as he finished the day in 23rd.
“I got hit by the 16 (AJ Allmendinger) going into the corner,” Hamlin said. “He shoved me out. Then I shoved him to the right and then the 14 (Chase Briscoe) cut the track and took the lead for a second there. I thought we were probably in good shape there, but this just turns everything upside down.”
Despite his penalty, Briscoe kept his foot in it as if he was still racing for the win, but eventually went off-track again, handing the lead over to Allmendinger, who went on to win the race. As a result of his penalty, Briscoe finished the race in 26th.
“There at the restart, everybody is trying to out-brake each other getting into one and we all kind of missed it to a certain extent,” Briscoe said. “I was getting ran wide and had nowhere else to go. I knew I was going to go through the grass. It was just a matter of do you go through it slow or gas it wide-open and hope you get through it.
“I don’t know if there would have been a penalty if I had gone through it slow but that was my only chance to win the race at that point. I went for that and stayed on him tight and knew the16 was right behind me. He was on newer tires. A lot of guys were getting lazy through that turn and would just swing it out wide and leave the bottom wide open. So, I was kind of all over him (Hamlin) in the esses and when I went to go underneath him I just clipped him in the right rear. He was already trying to get back to the left so it just turned him right around.
“It is unfortunate for them. They were probably going to win the race if the 16 didn’t get to him. For us we got a penalty and I don’t even know where we finished. It is frustrating to be that close. You can taste it and imagine what it would be like and then it gets taken away. I have a lot to be proud of. I feel like I showed that I belong here and I will get another chance next year.”
After the checkered flag flew, Hamlin made a bee-line down to Briscoe’s car, with the two having a lively conversation about what had just happened. Though things didn’t escalate from there, it was evident that they would agree to disagree on how everything played out between them.
“At first, I didn’t know if I was getting anywhere,” Briscoe said. “Once I explained to him that I didn’t even know I had a penalty until I got to Turn 10. If I knew I had a penalty, there was no need for me to even try to pass him for the win. If I would have known that earlier, I would have done my stop and go and went on. As I understood it, at that moment in time I could still win the race and I was going for it and got into him accidentally.
“I think at the end he kind of started to understand. He has been there when you are trying to get your first win and especially in our playoff situation, you have to do what you have to do. That is what I get paid to do and that is what I was trying to do.”
“I agree it’s not on purpose, but my team told me that he had a penalty right away and to me, it’s obvious,” Hamlin said of Briscoe’s response. “If you cut the racetrack and end up in the lead, you’re going to have a penalty. Lack of awareness. Race me for a lap. He went right in the back of me. We can’t race that way. I don’t think he did it malicious. I’ve raced with him for a year now. He’s not that kind of person, just bad judgement.”