Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson look for ‘rules of engagement’ after series of NASCAR run-ins

The two have been close friends for almost a decade but racing for wins has challenged their relationship

Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin, generally really close friends over the years, haven’t spoken over the past several weeks as that relationship has been challenged by a series of on-track run-ins.

“No, not yet, no,” said Larson on Saturday morning in Downtown Chicago.

Larson says the current rules of engagement between he and Hamlin come down to reaching a degree of on-track trust and an agreeable rules of engagement now that they are racing for NASCAR Cup Series wins virtually every week.

Right now, the hard racing isn’t fun and it’s stressing both of them out in real time.

“Just feeling like you can trust, maybe trust the moves that somebody is going to make on you, and I feel like that’s when you have close racing and trust what they’re going to do, I think that’s fun to me,” Larson said. “I’ve always enjoyed racing him a lot, you know, before, I guess, middle of last year. I’m sure we can get back to that point, and we’ve had fun racing each other since Pocono.

“There’s just been a few incidents where I feel like I’ve just been ran out of space a little more than maybe somebody else would put me in, in a situation. But yeah, I mean, I guess that could just be considered racing sometimes.”

They have had several high profile run-ins over the past two seasons. Hamlin squeezed Larson into the wall while racing for the win at both Kansas and Pocono last season. Hamlin ran Larson wide again at New Hampshire last month leading to both crew chief Cliff Daniels and spotter Tyler Monn to suggest that the driver shouldn’t take that anymore.

Larson did it back to Hamlin early in the race at Nashville, drawing the ire of the latter. Larson also tried to drive hard into the back of Hamlin on a late restart but washed up the track and wiped out Ross Chastain instead.

Larson argued after the race that he just needed clean air and needed to move Hamlin to get it. But would he have driven as deep in the corner if it wasn’t Hamlin leading?

“I’m not sure because I didn’t have somebody in front of me to know how I would have raced,” Larson said. “I would have ultimately known that I would need clean air on the nose, no matter who’s in front of me, but yeah, I guess you’d be less likely to be as dumb and aggressive as I was maybe, but again, you don’t really know until you are put in that situation.”

Ultimately, Hamlin says this kind of increased aggression is just a byproduct of both of them finding themselves running for wins and the championship the past two years. Larson leads the standings and Hamlin is third. They both have three wins, tied for the most in the series with Christopher Bell and William Byron.

“I think a lot of it comes from just running in the same position most times,” Hamlin said. “I mean, when it comes down to it, we’ve raced each other for a lot of wins over the last few years. And really, no matter what team he’s driven for, he’s competed for race wins and so yeah, I think a lot of that is because we’re running in the same place at the same time.”

Ultimately, Larson drew a comparison to his Sprint Car background in that throwing sliders with a rival for wins every weekend can be fun but only if the two combatants are on the same page over what is considered fair and foul.

“When you aim at somebody’s nerf bar, the other guy’s not having much fun,” Larson said. “So that’s where the moves that I’ve been a part of that I didn’t really feel like I’ve had much of an option sometimes, so if I can just … I’m talking like two inches more space, that would be great.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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