Denny Hamlin has a small wound near the knuckle on his right ring finger.
This is the sort of thing that happens when you ram your hand into the dash of a car. Try it sometime.
Hamlin wasn’t testing the strength of the car. He’s done that in any number of accidents over the years, and the car usually wins those battles. Hamlin slammed his hand into the dash – twice – in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in Phoenix, and he did it – decidedly – in anger and frustration.
Hamlin was on an almost certain path to finish no worse than second in the race and take a huge points lead into this week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, a bizarre chain of events and a fuel-mileage contest left Hamlin on the outside looking in and gave Sunday’s Ford 400 the potential to be one of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.
Hamlin, the point leader, is in front of second-place Jimmie Johnson by only 15 points, and third-place Kevin Harvick, 46 back, is within shouting distance of the championship if the two leaders fail to perform adequately or are taken out or limited by accidents.
A better finish at Phoenix would have left Hamlin skating this Sunday. Instead, he’s on edge, with the four-time defending champion a figurative car length behind him with 400 miles left in the season.
“It was frustrating for a while,” Hamlin said Thursday of his Phoenix experience. “I got the bloody knuckles to prove it. It’s just part of it. It’s part of our sport. We’re all going to have emotions on those kinds of days.
“For me, when I said I was leaving Phoenix, I left Phoenix, it was over with, it was. It was completely over with. The only time I relived it is when I got home. I do my normal thing, always re-watch the races no matter what to learn as much as I can.
“Once that I was done, turned the TV off, it was done. I thought about it a little bit before I went to bed. When I woke up the next day, just kept myself busy.”
Although Hamlin will have a target on his back Sunday and Johnson and Harvick are trying to involve him in various head games, he seems confident, secure and, if anything, maybe a little overexcited.
“The pressure like I’ve never seen before came when I had to fight for my job,” he said of his first few races with the Joe Gibbs Racing team. “That was way more pressure than this right here. I had to battle with a couple different drivers to get that 11 car, knowing I only had three starts to do it. That was serious pressure. This right here is fun, what I set out to do when I was a kid.”
Hamlin said his main interest Sunday is to keep Johnson either behind him or no more than one position in front of him. If Hamlin wins the race, Hamlin wins the title. If Johnson wins the race and leads the most laps and Hamlin finishes second, Hamlin wins the title.
He said he doesn’t plan to use a different driving style Sunday, even if the championship contest comes down to the final laps and an opportunity to bump a contender from the groove appears.
“I can’t really say that I would change my driving style, championship on the line or not,” Hamlin said. “Of course, you’re going to be more aggressive in situations. But for me to say I would wreck a guy or turn a guy for a championship, I don't know how high I could hold that trophy.
“Hopefully, I’ll have many other years to do it the right way. If someone had to put the spotlight on me and say, ‘You have to do this or not,’ I’m not going to change the way I drive. I was raised in driving one way. I’ve always had to fix my equipment when I raced late models. I’m not going to sell out. I’ll say that.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.