Denny Hamlin’s spot in NASCAR’s “championship four” could’ve been jeopardized by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Erik Jones. But radio communication indicates that Jones was told not to pass Hamlin late in Sunday’s race at Martinsville.
Hamlin and Jones were running in the 12th and 13th positions at the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway with about 15 laps to go. At that point, Hamlin was the third of four drivers qualifying for a chance to race for the title next weekend in Phoenix, sitting one point ahead of Brad Keslowski and two points above Kevin Harvick. Jones’ spotter, Rick Carelli, said to him over the radio: “Don’t pass him, Jones. Stay with him and drive what you can.”
According to NBC Sports, a Joe Gibbs Racing official said Monday that “we don’t have team orders.” Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials would review Jones’ late-race radio communication.
Shortly before Jones was told not to pass Hamlin, his crew chief, Chris Gayle, spoke to him: “(Hamlin is) going to race you hard because he needs to, because it’s within like three points for those guys. He’s going to race you hard because it’s three points on those guys. Just so you’re aware.”
Jones replied, “I’ve got a huge gap behind me.”
Hamlin’s positioning in the race turned out to be vital for how Harvick competed down the stretch. Knowing he needed a few more points, Harvick tried to pass Kyle Busch on the final lap before wrecking and dropping seven spots. Those seven spots equated to seven points — Hamlin finished nine points clear of Harvick. Hamlin finished the race in 11th place, with Jones right behind him in 12th.
Jones told Gayle over the radio after he’d crossed the finish line, “I don’t have much to say to you about the end. I’ll talk to you when I get in there.”
The Cup Rule Book lists the performance obligations that racers have as follows:
Jones’ potentially helpful racing as Hamlin’s teammate is clouded by the fact that Jones will soon be through with his time with Joe Gibbs Racing. He was informed in August that he wouldn’t be returning to JGR for the 2021 season. Jones will drive for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, replacing Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 car.
At 24, Jones is one of NASCAR’s rising stars. He finished in the top five in nine races during the 2020 Cup Series season, although Jones didn’t win a race this season. Jones came out on top in one Cup Series race each in 2018 and 2019.
Hamlin, 39, will get a chance to race for his first championship in Phoenix on Sunday. Hamlin’s closest championship bids have come in his rookie 2006 season, when he finished third, and in 2010, when he entered the final race leading the standings but was beaten out by Jimmie Johnson at Homestead on the last day.
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