HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In an unusual development, the pole-sitter for Sunday’s Ford 400 championship finale will start first in the race but won’t be stopping the last stall in the pits at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
How did Denny Hamlin feel about handing over the best spot for pit stops to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who will race for a title Sunday?
In an interview with the Associated Press and NBC Sports after the final practice Saturday, Hamlin (who is starting on the pole at the track for the second consecutive season) discussed his reaction to team owner Joe Gibbs’ decision to cede the No. 1 stall to Busch (who qualified second), the precedent it might set, how sponsor FedEx reacted and how racing is complicated Sunday for those outside the Championship 4.
Q: You said last night that you would prefer to keep the stall, can you explain how this decision was reached?
Hamlin: “Ultimately, it’s an upper management decision, and that’s part of it. I understand. Sat down with Joe quite a bit. He came over pretty fast to talk to me. I could see the other side of it. If the roles were reversed, I think we would hope for the same thing. I think that’s the thing that sucks about it. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, but we would expect the same thing back.
“The problem is from my standpoint is it probably will set a precedent going forward. It probably will be a manufacturer thing more so than a teammate. I hate it, too, because I denied Martin last year. Luckily he won the race anyway, but I just think it’s a tough deal, and you’ve got to listen to the boss. And I understand, too, that there’s 400 employees back at the shop saying you got to do it. We’re narrow-minded because we’ve got 20 guys here working on our car, but there’s also 400 or 500 at the shop who are like you’ve got to do what’s best for all of us. I get that part of it. Ultimately, I sat behind Kyle at Martinsville for just way too long at the end of the race thinking I shouldn’t pass him, and I lost the race by a 10th (of a second) and shouldn’t have done that. I look back, I gave away a Richmond race. A bunch of stuff I just gave away trying to help.
“Hopefully, it all just comes back full circle. Maybe I’ll even get a thank you text.”
Q: Joe Gibbs says you can win from your fourth stall; do you agree?
Hamlin: “Certainly. Sure you can. I think it just depends on the situation. If there’s a late-race caution, certainly it’ll hurt, but this race typically has gone green for a really long time. If that’s the case, it’s not as big of a factor, but if we have some cautions and things at the end, it definitely can play a role.”
Q: Have you heard from sponsor FedEx about the move?
Hamlin: “Yeah, I talked to them a little bit, and Joe talked to them. They actually said we would want the same in return if the roles were reversed. It’s good that they’re kind of understanding in that sense.”
Q: Can this be classified as manipulating the race?
Hamlin: “I don’t know. Tough to say. I was third last year on the last restart, I cleared Kyle, he was fourth, and I just let him go, so that’s manipulating, too. You could bring that up all the time. Everybody who’s not in it has manipulated for a teammate in some way, shape or form. Manipulating can go … I mean what do we do at Martinsville on restarts? That’s full manipulation. So that’s a big wide, broad term that this could definitely fall in, but definitely on the smaller side.”
Q: Is there any way to police it?
Hamlin: “There’s just no way. Short of just saying NASCAR says we agree No. 1 is the best pit stall and whoever gets the pole has to keep it. Short of that, the 4 car gave us the No. 1 stall at Richmond because it wasn’t the best stall. We qualified second, he chose not to take No. 1. The problem is if it moves away from this track, you could argue which stall is the best, but I think here everyone would agree No. 1 is the best.”
Q: How much of an indicator is this that the race is only important to the four championship contenders?
Hamlin: “Probably. In the grand scheme of things. Even if you come out here and win the race, and I’ve won the race here a few times, and it’s played no role in winning a championship, you’re celebrating in victory lane, and nobody really cares. It’s just about those guys, but they earned that right to be on the stage this weekend. We didn’t.”
Q: Has perspective evolved on how to race the contenders for the 35 guys who won’t race for the title, especially since Kyle Larson said he laid back last year in third instead of challenging the top two championship contenders?
Hamlin: “I think some people do things differently than others. I think Kyle Larson is the kind of guy who would pull the move he did last year to be like I could maybe go up, and I don’t think it was a foregone conclusion he was going to pass those guys. He kind of stalled out when he got there. He’s the guy that you’ve got to respect the people who are up there.
“I think that if it is not one of my teammates that are in that same position in the top two, and I’m third running them down, I’m going to try to pass them both. No matter if it’s a Toyota teammate, I have to think about it. Can I pass them in time? It’s the thing about this sport, you’re playing for the championship, but yet everyone is playing, too. It’s the same thing that sucks about it last week and the week before. We all have to play on the same field. And we’re all out there trying to achieve our own goals, and sometimes that crosses the path.”