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Hamlin courts controversy, counts victories after milestone 50th win

Denny Hamlin Denny Hamlin - The Canadian Press

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Denny Hamlin’s friends greeted him at the airport with a sparkling wine shower the instant he walked down the steps of his plane — and hours after he drove into victory lane at Pocono Raceway — in celebration of his 50th career NASCAR Cup win.

Let’s put that milestone in perspective.

Yes, with three Daytona 500 victories, crown jewel Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 wins and expansion into team ownership, Hamlin already was headed to the Hall of Fame.

But 50 wins in Cup stamps rockets him into rarified air. It’s the NASCAR equivalent of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in baseball that puts Hamlin on the short list of the true elite.

Consider, only 14 other drivers over NASCAR’s 75 years have hit that mark and all but three is in the Hall of Fame. Of those three on the outside, Jimmie Johnson is on the ballot this year, and Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are sure to get there.

The one caveat: Hamlin and Junior Johnson are the only ones in the 50 Cup Club without a championship.

The 42-year-old Hamlin is still chasing that first title without spending much time reflecting on his accomplishments.

“When you retire and you got a bunch of time, you’re sitting there on your rocker on your back porch, you’re thinking about, ‘What have I accomplished in the sport?’” Hamlin said. “These things take a long time to sit in. They really do.”

Hamlin could have enjoyed his 50th win earlier this season at Kansas had last year’s Pocono victory not been tossed out by NASCAR — he was the first winner to get DQ’d since 1960 — because his Joe Gibbs Racing team broke the rules. So he hit 50 at Pocono, where he won for a track-record seventh time. He won his first two Cup races at Pocono when he swept the season as a rookie in 2005.

Seemed fitting that Hamlin hit two milestones at Pocono, still in the No. 11 Toyota, still driving for Gibbs. That kind of continuity over a nearly 20-year span is essentially extinct in NASCAR.

“I never thought I’d get an opportunity in the Cup Series,” Hamlin said. “Luckily J.D. Gibbs took a chance and Joe Gibbs took a chance on me nearly 20 years ago. To get my 50th win, it comes down to the track that I got my first, it certainly is special.”

Special is one way to describe the win.

Kyle Larson had a few more, mostly unprintable, words about it toward Hamlin.

Larson, who already had lost a last-lap battle this season to Hamlin at Kansas, seemed poised to race for the win on the 400th mile at Pocono. Hamlin may have made the slightest of contact, sending Larson bumping into the outside wall and giving Hamlin a clear path to the finish line.

Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, was steadfast he never connected with Larson.

Larson insisted he was bumped and not-so-politely called the move uncalled for, especially because the two are good friends.

“I haven’t done that to Denny,” Larson said. “I don’t think I deserve to be run into before I ever got to the wall.”

Hey, at least Larson didn’t chuck a helmet at Hamlin in disgust like a wrecked Austin Dillon did to Tyler Reddick earlier in the race.

Hamlin slid out of his Toyota and was showered by boos from a sold-out Pocono crowd — the track’s largest since 2010 — that believed Denny did something dirty. Hamlin brushed off the boos — he’s no villain, he insisted — and said it was just clean, hard racing down the stretch.

“We waited. We pounced at the right time,” Hamlin said. “He didn’t get his right sides clean, drove in the corner just too far, let us get beside him. I thought we were going to race it out off of two. He got in the fence.”

Long recognized alongside Mark Martin as the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a championship, Hamlin is off to Richmond to chase No. 51 and perhaps get closer to signing a new deal with Gibbs.

Gibbs, who lost two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch at the end of last season to Richard Childress Racing and has Martin Truex Jr. talking retirement this season, remained confident he could strike a deal that would keep Hamlin in the fold beyond this season.

“We’re working on everything in our place,” Gibbs said. “We know Denny’s going to be here.”

It's where Hamlin wants to stay.

“Not everyone gets the opportunity to go from racing late models to racing for Joe Gibbs Racing in 18 months in the Cup Series,” he said. “It’s hard to do, it really is. But luckily they believed in me, gave me time to get going, and the rest is history."


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