Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin have had some unkind meetings this week. The two drivers who by all accounts are friends off the track have tangled on the track in the days leading up to Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season opening Daytona 500. The latest encounter occurred Thursday night during the second of two qualifying races for the Great American Race. Both drivers had a very public confrontation after it was over.
The first incident occurred the day prior during the first practice session at the 2.5-mile speedway. Patrick , who won the pole here in 2013 had just started practice when her Chevy and Hamlin’s Toyota made contact at speed just before the entrance to turn 3. Patrick was sent up into the wall across the track and came to rest in the grass. Hamlin was able to continue while Patrick’s crew was forced to prepare a backup car. The crash put Patrick’s hopes for making the field for the 500 in jeopardy.
Patrick started at the rear of the 24 car field. She quickly raced her way forward getting as high as sixth at one point. However with only four laps to go, Patrick was ahead of Hamlin at nearly the same point on the track where the two got together Wednesday. The result was the same as Hamlin appeared to bump Patrick and send her spinning. She again came to rest in the grass but was able to continue. Under the ensuing caution Patrick’s crew were able to make repairs and she stayed on the same lap as the leaders.
“ I am all about learning,” Patrick said. “I’m all about doing the right thing, but he said he needs to run close to move forward. Well you are turning me and it happened in practice too when he cut across my rear bumper. It pulls the back end around. That is why it looked like I tracked down, but I was just going down the straightaway. “
“ Here we are in the race and I’m seeing him in my mirror and he’s so tucked up underneath me, so close,” she added.” I get being close, but he is then going to my left rear. It just gets it light and it spun around. I don’t want to have these issues, but if we are going to have these issues then we are going to have to deal with them. We can’t be putting ourselves out of the race on someone else’s expense. Nothing has happened to him. I like to race hard, but there is no point in being out there wrecking each other.”
After the race, the drivers confronted each other on pit road. Hamlin appeared to be consoling Patrick.
“I was just trying to get – push her (Danica Patrick) – and get close, but I didn’t – no contact made her spin.” Hamlin said. “I just said, ‘You’ve got to tighten her car up.’ I can’t predict who has a loose setup or not. I mean, we’re superspeedway racing. I treat her as equal as anyone on the race track. She deserves her spot here, but you have to be able to run close to somebody on a superspeedway. You have to have your car stable enough to handle those situations and, to me, it’s not much different than what it was with the 22 (Joey Logano) and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) last week only I wasn’t pushing her. I was just close to her and her car got loose and she spun. Thank goodness she got her way in the 500. I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I treat her as an equal on the race track. I’m not going to say, ‘It’s Danica, so I’ve got to make sure I just leave some extra room.’ If you’re out here in the Cup Series, you have to be able to handle those situations.”
Patrick later said that what happened Thursday night was nearly identical to Wednesday. She also seemed less than satisfied with Hamlin’s response afterwards.
“It feels like the back gets lifted up and comes around. It didn’t feel quite as dramatic yesterday in practice. But the same sort of thing,” she said. “Yesterday when he went to pull down low, it just pulled my bumper around, but it tracked around, I was loose. Then it spun and wrecked, we go on to the next car. The same thing. Something similar happens tonight where I look in my rearview mirror and he’s tight up behind me. I can see he’s staggered to my left rear, the car gets really light and spins around. Same thing.”
“When we had a little chat afterwards, he told me my car was too loose, so…,” she added.
For his part, Hamlin seemed a bit apologetic when later. He added that he considers Patrick and her team owner Tony Stewart friends.
“I’ve got a great relationship with both of them ,” Hamlin said. “Danica is one of my better friends in this garage and Tony is too. They know I’ve got no intentions with those guys. That whole team – I’ve got a great relationship with them. Trust me, I’m sitting there shaking my head when she spun out, but there’s nothing you can do. You can’t treat anyone – you can’t allow more room because of somebody different when you’re trying to go forward. I’m trying to help her efforts and I just – I got too close to her I guess.”
At the end of the day there was some good news for the two. Both Patrick and Hamlin, whose qualifying time from the previous Sunday had been disallowed by NASCAR, will race this Sunday. Patrick will start 20th, Hamlin 42nd. Stull, Thursday night Patrick didn’t seem happy with Hamlin’s answer that her car simply spun when he got too close.
“I have no explanation for that. I am confident other cars get very close and things like that don’t happen,” she said. “Done thousands of miles of this speedway racing now and I haven’t found that to be a problem. So I just think that he’s wrong. I think that he’s too close. I think that he’s taking the air and getting it off the spoiler, and he’s not squared up either. That’s also part of the problem.”
“I don’t know,” she quipped. “Maybe he likes my left rear.”