NASCAR Driver Q & A · Danny Peters · Wednesday September 22, 2010
On lap 213 of the Sylvania 300, the first race of the 2010 Chase, Denny Hamlin was well-positioned for a strong top-5 finish. Running fourth at the time, with 87 laps of the 1.058-mile circuit still to traverse, he made a move on the outside of third-place Carl Edwards getting into Turn 3. Edwards, in turn, slid up the track and into Hamlin’s rear quarterpanel, causing the No. 11 car to spin out with the entire field barreling down the straightaway towards him. At that split second, after a six-win season and a top seed heading into the Chase, things looked decidedly bleak for the Chesterfield, Va., native.
But somehow — thanks in part to a nifty evasive maneuver from Kurt Busch, who was right behind the incident — Hamlin didn’t get T-Boned and, in fact, didn’t get so much as a scratch on the car as he spun up the track and away from the traffic. As Dale Jarrett said from the commentary booth moments later, “It’s a miracle he didn’t get hit.”
In years past, the immediate radio reaction from Hamlin might have been significantly different, furious even, but this time he keyed the radio and said, quite calmly, “The No. 99 can’t hold his line, can he?” And in that one incident, albeit one that could have been a whole lot worse, fans and competitors alike caught a glimpse of a new, more mature driver, personal growth that can make the difference in a title race that’s expected to go down to the wire. It’s a side I saw firsthand when I sat down to interview him during a New York Chase Media appearance in the week before Sunday’s race at Loudon.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: You were widely picked as the preseason favorite. Did that put a target on your back, or was it a good thing?
Denny Hamlin: I mean, it’s a balance. I still feel like the target is on Jimmie; he’s still the champion, he’s still won this four times in a row, so no matter how many wins we have, it’s hard for me to consider ourselves a favorite. We need to buckle down, and worry about us and I really feel that hurt us last year … I worried about everyone else but myself last year.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: How painful was racing at Phoenix 10 days after major knee surgery?
Denny Hamlin: It was as bad as it gets. You just can’t push down — and we’re at the heaviest braking racetrack. It was agonizing. But it was a good thing and a blessing in disguise for the team.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: When you were several laps down in the same race, running poorly overall, did you think you were done for 2010?
Denny Hamlin: I did. Up until the win at Martinsville, we were 20th in points; we weren’t running that well. We decided to do the surgery because we didn’t know if the season could be a wash anyway. So we got it [the surgery] done and then that way if we got a run, got in the Chase, I knew I’d be fine by September, ready to focus on winning a championship. It’s kinda as planned, we’re in our stride, we’re running better than what we ever have. And the leg’s not an issue now.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: So you’re playing hoops again?
Denny Hamlin: A little bit. I play half-speed now. I’m not as intense now. I don’t put myself in bad situations like I did before.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: You’ve won races in bunches recently. In a way, you never have before. Why?
Denny Hamlin: I just think there was a turning point midseason last year. I found a way to win races, to close races. I had a bad habit the first two or three years of leading every lap but the last one. We would lead as many laps as anyone during the course of the year and have six wins less. A lot of that falls on me, some on mechanical stuff. Somewhere around Richmond, I figured out how to save equipment, to save the best for last and not show my hand until it counted, since then the stars have lined up … I’ve just got things figured out.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: The race you won at Pocono last August, the week your grandmother passed away, it felt like you just weren’t going to be beaten …
Denny Hamlin: Felt that way as a driver. My back against the wall, I’d lead the whole race. We took tires and then we were 19th with 15 to go. This is impossible, I thought … and I just had to find a way to do it. From that point on, I found a little bit of speed in myself in the car I didn’t know was there.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: Your most emotional victory ever?
Denny Hamlin: For sure. We’d gone a long streak without a win … that was big, too. Not only was it my grandmother, but also, it was the excitement of getting it [the winless streak] over with.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: Have you left any wins on the table this year?
Denny Hamlin: There have been a few. Don’t want to get greedy, but we had an awesome shot at Talladega and the caution comes out. I’ll take that win in October. But we can’t be too greedy, we’ve had a good season no matter what; winning at all different types of racetracks. It’s been a great run for us, and we’ve never been this competitive. This is by far the best shot to win it all.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: The No. 11 team won the Pit Crew Challenge … congratulations. Talk about the guys.
Denny Hamlin: We’ve had ups and downs with those guys. At the drop of a dime when I wanted to make a change, we stuck with the same core group of guys. Most of them have been on the team for five years – since the beginning – and it goes a long way. We have great chemistry within the whole team. We’ve given them a second, third chance to redeem themselves, and they’ve stepped up to the plate and won me races this year.
Danny Peters, Frontstretch.com: Talk a little about your relationship with Mike Ford.
Denny Hamlin: I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. He’s been my rock – the rock behind the team that keeps it all together. We had instant chemistry. You can’t fake it. It has to just happen. He’s the guy for me.
Peters: How big was the Cup and Nationwide double at Darlington?
Hamlin: It was big. I feel like that race is huge in history. Last year I passed out in the shower, that race wore me out so bad. To win was a big deal. We always run well at Darlington. I had the trophy in the living room with the faces and names of the previous winners. It’s the best of the best, and for me to put our name on that trophy was amazing … it was a big deal.
Peters: You’ve been less consistent this year. Is that a problem coming into the Chase?
Hamlin: For sure. I definitely think so; top 5s still pay in our championship. It always has, always will, until they give the winner 15 extra bonus points or whatever. It’s going to be about consistency. It seems like we either win or have problems [this year], but the encouraging part is all the ones where we had problems, we were in contention to win. If we could just put it all together, we could go on a heck of a run in the next ten weeks. And I don’t see any reason why we can’t.
Peters: New Hampshire and Dover are key races for you.
Hamlin: If I leave Dover within 50-80 points, we’ve got a great shot at this thing. I’ve got to play defense these next two weeks, make sure I stay on the racetrack to go make a run at it. I feel like our big track program is so good – we won at three or four of the Chase tracks over the course of my career. There’s no reason we can’t get it done.
Peters: You had a genuine shot to win the championship at Homestead in your rookie year. Was that a missed opportunity?
Hamlin: It’s crazy to believe that I had a shot to win that championship — I still can’t even fathom it. At this point, I’d be so excited to be at Homestead with a shot to win the championship. I think I was so ignorant to how big an accomplishment that was. We lost it at Charlotte [that season]. Qualified badly after qualifying well all year. I got in a wreck on the first lap and finished 28th. That’s the 60 points we lost.
Peters: How have you settled into your role as JGR team leader?
Hamlin: Depends on what you consider a team leader. Is it the guy that wins the most or the guy who goes to the shop, does the dirty work, and decides on the direction our team will go in? And I feel like I’ve done that with this race team. I show up at the shop and try to help figure out what it takes to make all our teams better because, ultimately, the better Kyle and Joey run, the better I’m going to run. So I feel like we’ve taken a good step as far as taking the controls of that, and it’s obviously working.
Peters: You’ve talked in the past about whether the No. 11 team is the team to beat if there are no mechanical failures. Do you believe you are the driver to beat?
Hamlin: Overall, I’m the best one out there. I’m better than I was in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 – I’m better every single year. And I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made along the way. I’ve got a notebook of things not to do in the Chase, I’ve got four years of not succeeding, so the more information you have on what not to do the better off you’re going to be.
Peters: Do you think you’re in the right frame of mind where you can handle mechanical failures in the Chase this year?
Hamlin: I wear it on my shoulder more than I should and I let it get to me. There’s nothing I can really do about it. I don’t know why I get so bent out of shape. The team is doing all they can. Reliability is the number one thing we work on at Joe Gibbs Racing [so] I can’t let that stuff get to me. If mechanical failures take me out of the championship, so be it. We’ve won races; we’ve had a good year.
Peters: What are your thoughts on the ideas of an elimination system inside the Chase itself?
Hamlin: My opinion on those Game 7s, the buzzer beaters – what makes them so special is they don’t ever happen, and they don’t happen often. When you try to fabricate it, I think it cheapens it a little bit and sports fans are too smart for that. I think it’s just resetting it over and over — you just run the risk of not having a fluke champion, but not having the right guy winning the championship.
In head-to-head sports, your competitor makes a mistake, you win. Our competitors can make a mistake and cost us. That’s why [NASCAR] originally had this as a 36-week champion: sometimes chance and luck come into play, so that’s why it took 36 weeks to figure out who was the right guy. I feel, and it’s just my opinion, if you reset it over and over you could run the risk of not having the right guy hoisting the trophy.
Peters: So you’d give more points to a winner of a race?
Hamlin: For sure, there should be more for winning. If a guy wins 10 more races [in the regular season] and someone doesn’t win any, a 100-point lead is not enough. The regular season point leader also deserves a bonus. For the most part, I think our system works.
Peters: How many more years do you want to race at the Cup level?
Hamlin: I’d say 10 more years. I don’t think I’d want to go until I’m 50 like Mark [Martin]. There’s too much I want to do in the course of my life rather than being in a motorhome 40 weeks a year. Hopefully, I get it all done in 10 years.
Peters: If you never win a championship, would you be a failure?
Hamlin: (pauses) Yeah … the ultimate goal of anyone who gets to the highest level of a sport is to win a championship, and when you don’t, I just feel like it’s a little incomplete.
Peters: What are the plans for “Denny Seats” next year?
Hamlin: We’re working out plans for 2011. We’ve given away a lot of seats to a lot of people through Facebook and Twitter. It’s good to see what the fans think about it, and I’ve been able to help fans who can’t afford tickets or who’ve missed out on them for some reason.
Peters: Which track do you want to win, where you haven’t yet?
Hamlin: Bristol’s a big one. I’ve been so close so many times it’s been sickening. I love the old school big wooden trophy.
Peters: Where are your Martinsville Grandfather clocks?
Hamlin: I have one. My mom and dad have the other two.
Peters: What’s the Cup race you most enjoyed?
Hamlin: Racing Dale Jr. at Richmond in my rookie season. I can’t remember being any more excited of this position I was in. I finished second to him. This was a guy I was really good friends with and we race online together. We had those races a million times online, just like that.
Peters: Did Junior always win?
Hamlin: He says he always wins, but that’s not [true]. I was definitely a better online racer than him. But [that night] I just put the pressure on him and made him earn the win… that was satisfying for me.
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