Denny Hamlin ready for NASCAR’s return at Darlington: ‘It will be a challenge’

NASCAR returns to racing May 17 at Darlington Raceway, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin details what he expects out of the race.

Denny Hamlin is going to do as he’s told at Darlington Raceway when NASCAR returns May 17 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Toyota expects all of the other Cup Series drivers present to cooperate in the same way. There’s too much on the line to not. Live racing is almost back, and no one wants to lose it again.

Race-day protocol is obviously going to be different. There will not only be an absence of fans, but team personnel will also be limited. Rosters are limited to 16 people, which includes those required such the driver, spotter and crew chief. The owner even counts if attending.

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That’s only the beginning of the precautions the sanctioning body is implementing and everyone involved in the sport is taking seriously amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we‘re doing things,” Hamlin said Saturday after his second win in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. “For all of us, it‘s just the unknown of making sure we‘re doing it the right way.”

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The aspect of the unknown bleeds into the on-track competition, too.

None of these drivers have had actual seat time since Joey Logano’s win more than two months ago on March 8 at Phoenix Raceway. They also won‘t have any practice time at Darlington prior to the drop of the green flag for the 400.2-mile race. They don‘t even qualify. NASCAR truly wanted this to be a one-day event.

“I envision people are going to be pretty timid, at least for the first few laps, just trying to understand, checking your travels,” Hamlin said. “There‘s plenty of times where these things unload, the cars are hitting the race track, you‘re not ready to be in a pack quite yet. That will certainly be different.”

Darlington is known as the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

“I mean, it will be a challenge,” Hamlin said. “I think every driver thinks they have an advantage, right?  But I like that there’s so many unknowns.”

Hamlin has won twice at Darlington in his 14 career starts there so far — 2010 and 2017. He also already has a 2020 win thanks to his third Daytona 500 victory back in February. That means he’s locked into this season’s NASCAR Playoffs, as are Alex Bowman (who won at Fontana) and Joey Logano (who won at Las Vegas and Phoenix). They were the three drivers to win before the competition pause hit in March due to COVID-19, halting the season for two-plus months.

Darlington will welcome back postseason repercussions to the racing world. A playoff berth is on the line. Amid all of the other changes, that part has remained the same.

There can’t be any post-race pit-road dust-ups, though, which will make things interesting if drivers get heated during the waning laps. Social-distancing rules rule the day and prevent any type of physical contact; people must be six feet apart at all times. Revenge will have to wait, or at least carry over to a later event.

“If there‘s ever a time to be aggressive, ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it,” Hamlin said, “because you don‘t have to face the consequences after the race.”