Denny Hamlin was two laps away from his first win in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series — in the third-to-last race of the regular season — when disaster struck him from behind.
Namely, Cup Series rookie Chase Briscoe.
Hamlin was ahead of the pack in the first lap of the second of two overtime attempts, and his closest competition, Briscoe, had just been assessed a penalty after the former nudged him wide through the grass on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It appeared as if Hamlin would be able to keep the pack behind him en route to his first trip to victory lane. Until, that is, Briscoe spun him out from behind in Turn 10:
Hamlin finished the race 23rd, getting no points for a win or even a top-10 finish. Briscoe finished 26th.
Luckily for Hamlin, the eventual winner of Sunday’s race, AJ Allmendinger, is only a part-time Cup Series driver. That means that, even with a first-time winner in the third-to-last race of the regular season, Hamlin locked in a playoff spot despite Kyle Larson passing him for the outright points lead. The same luck applies to drivers Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick, who still can make the postseason on points assuming there are no more unique winners this season.
Regardless of Hamlin’s postseason status, NBC cameras caught what looked like a tense conversation between the two drivers as Briscoe explained himself:
Following the conversation, Hamlin said on the NBC telecast that Briscoe had told him he wasn’t aware he’d been assessed a penalty — something Hamlin’s team told him as soon as Briscoe’s car cut through the grass (Briscoe told reporters from NBC the same). Hamlin added that he wasn’t mad at Briscoe, only that the driver of the No. 14 car had shown a “lack of awareness” of the situation.
“I can accept (Briscoe’s explanation),” Hamlin said. “The roles have been reversed other times. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve been on the giving end of a mistake. So I get it. To me it’s like a lack of situational awareness where obviously you’re going to have a penalty until you cut the race track.”
Briscoe also told the NBC telecast he was unaware he had been assessed a penalty until after he already spun Hamlin out. He said that, while he wasn’t trying to spin Hamlin out, he was attempting to go for what would have been his first career win. He also said it wasn’t in retaliation for Hamlin nudging him off the track.
Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that NASCAR will review radio communication from Briscoe’s spotter to Briscoe to determine whether the spotter “conveyed the message well to the driver” before Briscoe drove into Hamlin.
Sunday’s race was no stranger to spinouts, crashes or chaos in general as drivers struggled to overcome Indy’s winding road course. The toughest portion of the track was in Turn 6, which casued multiple spinouts, flying debris and two separate multicar crashes in the late stages of the race (the first was on Lap 78 and the second was on the first of the two overtime attempts).