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Denny Hamlin Championship 4 Media Day breakout

The four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship contenders met with the media individually on Thursday afternoon.

Do you feel any particular pressure being one of just a few drivers in the top 25 all-time wins who doesn’t have a championship?

DENNY HAMLIN: There’s maybe self-pressure a little bit because I’ve worked since I was eight years old to win a NASCAR Cup championship. I never thought I’d even be here. But I’ve got a chance, an opportunity, another one. This will be our third essentially going to Homestead with a legit shot.

You could argue my rookie season, we were 60 behind, had a chance. But certainly you don’t want to squeeze away any opportunities, but it doesn’t make me nervous by any stance. We already won Homestead. We won Homestead last week. That was our win-or-go-home race. We performed at an incredibly high level.

We have now a free weekend to go out there and have fun and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ll have a chance by the end of the night because we have all year long as long as we do the same thing.

(No microphone.)

DENNY HAMLIN: I have some late model ones. I mean, I think especially like I talked on the stage about going up against these three would make it the most special.

The way last year went, how much more do you enjoy success now?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think any time you have past failures or you let something slip away, something gets away from you, whether it be a shot at a championship or race wins or not winning at all, you appreciate it when you do win so much more.

So I think certainly coming off a winless year, then winning the Daytona 500, it’s like, All right, we don’t have to worry about that for the rest of the year.

You don’t know how the rest of the year is going to turn out, right? It is a superspeedway, some things go into that. Winning a race a few weeks later in Texas, We might have something here. We kept winning as the year went on.

Certainly it makes it feel good any time because you know what the defeat feels like, and now you get to feel the excitement.

This being Homestead, the last race for the last time, obviously you would be in favor of having Phoenix as an end race forever, are you in favor of moving that last race of the year around, giving everybody else a chance at it?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I think as long as the facilities are up to date. I think that’s the number one thing we have to be sure of. That and it’s in a good market.

I think Homestead-Miami, it’s a good market. I think the facilities could use updating, which I think they will. This is not the last time the finale will be in Homestead. You can mark that down.

Phoenix now gets their time. They spent money on the facility. It’s obviously a huge sports town. They got nearly every professional sport there in that city. It’s just a good market for us.

People have come out and supported that race in huge capacity, and it hadn’t been a championship race. Why not continue to feed that momentum? Whatever they want to do, I’m good with. As I said, it’s a good market and the facility is up to date.

What is Joe Gibbs like as a leader?

DENNY HAMLIN: He’s good. He stays focused on a game plan. He never likes to be not prepared. If he has a question, we don’t need to have an answer of, Well, I never really thought about that. We need to be prepared any time he asks us a question relating to what our strategy is or whatnot.

He constantly checks up on us. He calls us every night after practice between 11 and midnight. Better answer the phone. He’s at the bus first thing Sunday morning. How is your car? What do we need to work on? Goes to the crew chiefs, talks to them.

He is a leader. He is still active with the race team. He’s at the race shop at 7 or 8 in the morning, most mornings, at Joe Gibbs Racing. He is there. That family is all in on racing, right? They don’t have any other major businesses that flows the income, right? This is their baby and they treat it that way.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing?

DENNY HAMLIN: No doubt, the worst. I’ve been part of the worst. The worst was this year in Daytona. Literally, I mean, top lip gets trembling. I’m looking over at Coy, hoping he’s going to save me from this. But he’s not.

Basically we had a practice plan, and I felt like I needed to get in the pack and draft. As soon as I made my way to the back of the pack, someone wrecked and I got in it. They were furious, to say the least, absolutely furious.

He’s like, You’re going to pay for that car.

Okay, okay, okay.

Luckily I won the Daytona 500. Don’t worry about that. Sorry I got so mad at you. It’s fine.

You can see he’s a football coach?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, no doubt. You could see there was some locker room talk going on there, for sure.

You talked a lot recently about increased work ethic, increased dedication. Could you expand more on what’s different about this Denny Hamlin and what triggered that in you?

DENNY HAMLIN: There’s a lot of factors, to be honest with you. Most of them are personal. But I just feel like my focus has just been how can I give the best effort out on the racetrack that I possibly can, prepare to the max all that I can. On top of that, I’ve got fast cars. That’s been the two major things that have been the catalyst for the difference from year to year.

How has Chris Gabehart been able to help you professionally and personally?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think he helps with that balance. I mean, certainly I documented last week that we’re not great friends off the racetrack. That’s probably not completely true. We do talk about other things other than racing. We call each other in the middle of the week. Sometimes it’s just kick it. Probably not a fair statement to say we’re just professional partners in this and that’s it.

I think he brings out the best in me. That is absolutely for sure. I always think about every time I suit up or I get in the racecar, I buckle in, he comes to the window and talks to me. I feel like this has just been something he’s rehearsed, just the speech to pump me up.

It’s so funny, he’ll leave, and the guy that puts my wind nets up, Wonder how long he spent practicing that?

He never is short of motivation. I think that’s really one of his strong suits. You hear it on the radio, too, right? Kind of never lets me get out too far one way. He guides you back in the lane.

Is that something that’s been missing in your career with our other crew chiefs?

DENNY HAMLIN: He does it the most. But I would say the closest to that was probably Mike Ford. He was kind of a tough, tough son of a bitch at times. I was a young guy. He had been pretty experienced, worked with Bill Elliott and those guys. He wasn’t afraid to tell me like it is, for sure.

I think there’s definitely some merit in that.

If you win Sunday?

DENNY HAMLIN: ‘When’?

‘When’ you win on Sunday, the sport won’t have another multi-time champion other than Jimmie. Being in the shadow of Jimmie, how should your generation be viewed? Is it now championship appearances? How should the four of you guys be looked at?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think there’s some merit to championship appearances. I think one race, winner take all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.

Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend. That’s really different.

I think when you had championships based off of the entire season, even when we had the playoff system of having it for 10 straight weeks, having that playoff, it was a bigger sample size, right? You felt like, Wow, that guy, he’s been the best over the long haul.

I don’t want to discredit anyone that’s won under this format. For the most part the best still came out and won. But certainly it is a little by chance any time you deal with a one-race winner take all.

Can you talk about the season as a whole. TV ratings are up, some tracks… How do you feel the state of the sport is here, how the sport has done this year?

DENNY HAMLIN: I was kind of pessimistic a little bit before this season. I do feel like the bottom has been found and we have now turned the corner. A lot of that has to do with the strategy that NASCAR has done with their marketing, really spending more dollars on upgrading facilities, which I’ve always said I thought was the number one priority.

I just think they’ve got a good team right now that are working on the right things. I think it’s showing.

From a mentality standpoint, how would you compare your mindset through these playoffs into this last race compared with other times when you’ve been a championship contender, even 2010?

DENNY HAMLIN: So much nicer and friendlier and not as agitated. I think just way more calm this time around. Seven days ago I had no idea we were going to be here. I knew there was a chance. Hey, we go out and we win, we can do it. Trying to call your shot and say you’re going to win against the best guys, you can’t just assume you’re going to win.

I was pretty down after Texas. I knew it was on me. I’ve been eliminated from the playoffs many, many ways. The craziest shit has happened to me to keep me from winning championships. Texas was on me. I was going to hate that I was going to be responsible for ending our chance at a championship.

Still didn’t mean our year wasn’t a success, but it was really going to be a bummer to not make it because I knew I was the one that was behind the wheel on that one.

Is getting to that point a maturity thing or experience?

DENNY HAMLIN: A little bit of experience. The other is just you learn. I guess that’s kind of experience, but you learn from your past wrongdoings in that sense.

I didn’t have any fun in 2010. 2014, I really don’t remember a whole lot about my mindset from that week. Our cars really weren’t running that well, so I was probably just happy to be there.

This year I’m excited because I know I’ve got the opportunity, a really, really good, legit opportunity to go out there and get it done. I’m just going to do the same things, prepare the same way that I have all year. I know that will give me a chance. At some point in the race, I’m going to have an opportunity to take control and win the race.

As long as I continue to do that, I’ll live with the result, win or lose.

You had Jordan in your corner in ’14. Is he making a return?

DENNY HAMLIN: Most likely.

How has Joe, a man of faith, help you soldier on this year?

DENNY HAMLIN: Joe has been very instrumental in many, many ways, beyond being a leader of a race team. Obviously the passing of J.D. was one thing, but I had a tough stretch in the middle of the summer where I leaned on him quite a bit. He helped me through. He really did.

I think oddly enough, as all that went on, my performance went straight up, very linear. So I think he’s a person that I although don’t talk to much outside of racing, when I needed him, he was there and he helped.

Certainly is a person I idolize for sure.

What do you think this season has done for you in terms of maybe your confidence in your ability, where you stand in this sport? How far do you think it goes in terms of for people that have been critics of you in this sport?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think outside people have been more optimistic about my talents than maybe I have at times. But there’s also times where I’ll do something, last week for instance, I mean, I’m pretty (expletive) good at this. I can do this.

I know I’ve won big races. I stepped up to the plate when it’s really mattered. It hasn’t always equaled a championship, but I definitely think the narrative should be changed simply based off of last week. I mean, that was going to be our final race unless we won it.

I think we’ve won Daytona 500 in the closest finish coming from behind on the final lap. I mean, those are clutch moments, right?

I just think any time you have a goose egg in the big category, the championships, people will always put together, Well, why didn’t that happen? He choked in 2010.

Well, in Phoenix I was kicking everyone’s ass, my car ran out of gas. Essentially I would have had to start my car in Homestead. Certainly I made terrible decisions in Homestead. I still had a very, very good chance to win it.

That was one of the moments where I was so distraught from Phoenix, Homestead was a complete blur because I was so enraged, I can’t believe we’re in the situation, we should be able to cruise through this weekend. That was not having the mentality of, So what, now what. Can’t help what happened, let’s move on, figure out what we can do right now.

How far does a season like this go for you?

DENNY HAMLIN: A long way. A long way. There’s no doubt. I can’t sit here and minimize it, how much it means to me personally, to have a season like this and win under the circumstances that we’ve won.

Has your confidence ever been higher?

DENNY HAMLIN: No. Not even in 2010 when we were really fast every week.

You just said to yourself, I can really do this. When you look at the win totals now, it’s kind of snuck up on people. People, Do you see Denny Hamlin has had a NASCAR Hall of Fame career? They look at the numbers and go, Yeah. Do you think you’ve had a career like that?

DENNY HAMLIN: I’ve had Hall of Fame teammates. That casts a big shadow at times. I think that’s a lot of the reason that it’s been kind of overlooked a little bit, the win totals, things like that, the big races that we’ve won.

Ultimately, I mean, I’m paired up with Kyle Busch. I was paired up with Tony Stewart. Those are big, significant names in our sport that have accomplished a lot. You’re constantly always getting compared to them.

People think if you’re second best on your team, you must not be that good. I mean, not taking anything away from anyone else, but my teammates have been pretty good. I mean, those guys are what I consider probably top five in the last 50 years of drivers.

I’ve been fortunate and unfortunate to be paired with guys like that.

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