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As run-ins mount, Larson says on-track racing with Hamlin all about trust

Kyle Larson said he hasn’t spoken to Denny Hamlin since the latest installment in their series of on-track run-ins last weekend at Nashville.

CHICAGO — Kyle Larson said he hasn’t spoken to Denny Hamlin since the latest installment in their series of on-track run-ins last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, saying that their rules of engagement boil down to a matter of trust.

Larson enters this weekend’s Chicago Street Race festivities as the NASCAR Cup Series points leader, and he’s tied with Hamlin, Christopher Bell and William Byron with a series-best three wins each this season. Larson and Hamlin have had a friendly relationship that’s been tested by an almost magnetic tendency for their fenders to connect in recent years.

Getting back to a healthy — or even fun — ability to race each other aggressively but cleanly is something Larson says is achievable in time.

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“Just feeling like you can trust, maybe trust the moves that somebody’s gonna 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, making note of a significant flare-up last summer at Pocono Raceway. “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.”

The two battled hard for third place at the conclusion of Stage 2 during last weekend’s Ally 400 in Nashville, with Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet carrying momentum that moved Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota up out of the groove through Turns 1 and 2. Larson took the spot, and Hamlin delivered a handful of irate bumps as the cars slowed after the green-checkered flag.

The speculation that Larson may have taken a different tack if another driver had been in that position was real.

“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.”

That Larson and Hamlin are among the most successful drivers of the past few years is perhaps a key culprit for the rise in on-track run-ins. The two are battling for both wins and position at the front of the field, putting their cars — each with an aggressive-minded driver behind the wheel — consistently in close proximity.

“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.”

The extracurricular bumps on the cooldown heading into the stage break, however, drew a stern rebuke from No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart, a team leader typically not prone to raised voices.

“It was not as intense after (the race), for sure,” Hamlin said of their post-race discussion. “But in the moment, he’s trying to relay some information to me, and I don’t think he feels like he had my attention at that exact moment. So that’s why the volume probably turned up when it did.”

Larson drew a parallel to his dirt-track racing background, where slide jobs in front of another competitor are more commonplace in a short-track setting. Getting just a sliver more room in his battles with Hamlin, he said, would help matters.

“If you’re talking about like dirt when you have an option to crossover, that’s, you know, fair and fun,” Larson said. “But when you aim at somebody’s nerf bar, the other guy’s not having much fun. 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.”

Contributing: Staff reports