Denny Hamlin didn't win in Virginia on Sunday, but he did earn a new title.
NASCAR analyst Pete Pistone with MRN.com says Hamlin has officially taken over as the sport's top villain for knocking Chase Elliott out of contention for the checkered flag. There is a qualifier though. I'll get to that in a minute.
Sunday's First Data 500 was a tremendous race, perfect for the playoff scenario NASCAR wanted. To top it off, it looked as if the very popular Elliott was going to win his first career Cup race. Then Hamlin chased him down with only two laps left and spun him out. The collective gasp from NASCAR fans could be heard.
Pistone points out that Hamlin has been cultivating the new title the better part of the season. From questions surrounding "modifications" to his car discovered in post-race inspection at Darlington to saying drivers deserve more money, his actions on Sunday just cemented perceptions for many fans.
That said, Hamlin may be a by-product of NASCAR's efforts to liven up racing when they created the playoff model. Pistone argues that there is now a win at all cost mentality wrapped in a hyped Championship chase. The fact that NASCAR's CEO Brian France has said "NASCAR is a contact sport" is backed up by numerous examples cited by Pistone where drivers haven't been reprimanded for taking actions like what Hamlin did to Elliott. NASCAR has already said they won't penalize Hamlin.
So even though Hamlin apologized to Elliott and fans, it will take much more than that to get him back in good graces. On the flip side, Jimmie Johnson looks a lot better to fans now.