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Denny Hamlin fights for title spot, while 23XI races with substitute drivers

Denny Hamlin holds the final transfer spot to the championship race and serves as part-owner of a team that will have two substitute drivers competing for it Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway after NASCAR suspended Bubba Wallace.

“Ownership,” Hamlin told reporters Saturday after a heavy sigh.

John Hunter Nemechek, driving in place of Wallace, qualified fourth for Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Ty Gibbs, who is driving in place of the injured Kurt Busch, qualified sixth.

“I think that John Hunter is going to do a great job for us,” said Hamlin, won co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “Ty’s been doing a great job, kind of learning the ropes and getting some seat time before he makes a move (to Cup). While it’s not ideal for 23XI, it kind of gives these young guys an opportunity to go out and prove themselves.”

MORE: Kyle Petty says Bubba Wallace should have been suspended rest of season

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Homestead

Wallace is out after NASCAR penalized him for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wallace reacted after Larson forced Wallace into the wall. Wallace then drove down the track and hit Larson in the right rear, sending both into the wall. The contact caused Larson to hit Christopher Bell, a playoff driver, ending Bell’s race.

“Obviously, he was certainly frustrated with the on-track part of it,” Hamlin said Saturday of Wallace. “I totally understand. Larson put him in a bad spot there. I’ve done it many times this year where I kind of squeezed (a car) and it’s why William (Byron) got so mad (at Hamlin at Texas).

“These cars coming off the corner just have a weird air buffer that you get someone to the inside of you, it just kind of pushes your car up. I understand why (Wallace is) mad, certainly, but I think he understands the bigger picture … it’s just a bad look for us.”

Hamlin said Wallace understands what he’s done.
“We’ve all done tough stuff in our career that has defined us,” Hamlin said. “How you return from it will define (Wallace). What was a shame is that he’s made some huge strides since Nashville as a driver. He’s a perennial top-10 running guy now.

“It’s a shame because people aren’t going to focus on how much better of a driver he’s gotten through the year. They’re going to focus on this one incident, this one millisecond in time that he made a bad decision. It will just take some time for him to change that narrative.”

Hamlin said he and the team supported NASCAR’s decision to suspend Wallace one race for the incident.

“It’s not a good look for our team,” Hamlin said, “but he’s got to learn. I truly believe if he had it to do all over again, he’d do it different.”

Hamlin said that team also dealt with Wallace’s actions internally but did not reveal details.

Hamlin said Wallace would be in the shop for Sunday’s race, monitoring the event, similar to what Busch has done since suffering a concussion in a July 23 crash at Pocono Raceway.

Hamlin said that while NASCAR “drew a line in the sand” in penalizing Wallace’s retaliation, he still has questions on when it is a penalty.

NASCAR did not initially penalize Byron for spinning Hamlin under caution at Texas after Hamlin forced Byron into the wall. Two days later, NASCAR penalized Byron points and fined him, but an appeals board changed the penalty to only a fine, increasing the amount.

NASCAR did not penalize Carson Hocevar for hooking Colby Howard in the right rear in a Camping World Truck Series race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July. The contact sent Howard into the wall head-on.

Hamlin said the different reactions from NASCAR create many questions on intentional contact.

“Is it the speeds of the track? What is the determining factor,” Hamlin said of such a penalty. “Is it because the crash (at Las Vegas) looked real bad?”

With all that behind him, Hamlin’s focus is on returning to the championship race and seeking his first Cup title. He starts 14th Sunday.

Hamlin leads Byron, the pole-sitter at Homestead, by six points for the final transfer spot to the title race. Chase Briscoe trails Hamlin by nine points, Ryan Blaney trails Hamlin by 11 points and Bell trails Hamlin by 23 points.