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Championship contender media availability – Denny Hamlin

An Interview With: DENNY HAMLIN

            THE MODERATOR:  This is Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for FedEx.  Seven wins on the season, and Denny, now making your third Championship 4 appearance.  The first question I have for you is why is it going to be different this year?  Why will you come away as champion in 2020?

DENNY HAMLIN:  No guarantees, so I can’t tell you why.  But I’ll let you know after the race is over why we won.  But it’s going to take execution and a fast car.  Those are the two things that you’re going to have to do to win.  I think it’s going to ‑‑ will take a win to win it all.

You know, I thought I was in a good position last year and things just didn’t work out, right, so there’s no givens.  I don’t think there’s any favorites.  I view all my competition equally, that they’re all dangerous in their own different ways.

This one is a tough one to handicap.  From my perspective, I’m a numbers guy, I like the law of averages.  If I just keep putting myself in that Final Four, eventually things will fall my way.

Last year at Phoenix a lot was made of your preparation.  I’m curious, are you going to play tennis until the wee hours of the morning just like you did last year?

DENNY HAMLIN:  If I had a tennis court, I would, but you know, that’s the thing, right; I’m different when it comes to that.  I look for distractions versus people trying to avoid them.  I tried to avoid them in 2010 and it was the worst mistake I ever made was just not enjoying the weekend.  It was my birthday weekend, why wouldn’t I celebrate that anyway.

It’s my personality.  I make sure that I spend the dedicated amount of time I need to do to prepare, and beyond that I do my normal, everyday routine, which is just live life.  I was at a friend’s daughter’s birthday party a couple days ago, and I’ll go golfing tomorrow for the next couple days, and I’m just ‑‑ I’m happy with the result because I know that I’m going to be prepared when I get in the car on Sunday to do the best job possible.

Looking at this year through a competition lens, do you look at it and say, man, it was a wild year in the sense you missed races because of COVID, a lot of races without qualifying and stuff, or has everything become so normal you look at it and say this is the year where Harvick didn’t make the Final Four even though he won nine races?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I think of it more from just the general change of the sport this year and how nimble NASCAR was to be able to get us back racing, be one of the first major sports back after the pandemic hit, their willingness to be open to changes, not necessarily saying this is the way we’ve done it for a long time, we have to have this to compete.  They were willing to make changes, and for me, that was a game changer for my perspective, and certainly there’s some things that are going to linger on for years to come because of what we have learned through this whole process.

Yeah, it’s been a different year.  There’s no doubt about it.  This week in general is different.  I mean, I used to hate media days.  It was so long and drug out and just such a pain from a driver’s perspective, but you know, as you get older you start to understand and appreciate that these are the moments that you’ve really got to let sink in because this to me is ‑‑ this means you had a successful year.  It’s not whether you win this weekend or not; your year is based off of ‑‑ the championship is not necessarily an indicative measuring stick of your whole year.  If you get to the Final Four, that is a measuring stick that you’ve had a successful year.

This is going to be a great weekend that we’re going to live with the result no matter what it is, and I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it.

It’s different, but we’ve adapted all year.  It won’t hurt us to adapt for one more week.

You said as soon as you got out of the car the other day that you felt bad for Harvick.  I’m wondering now that you’ve reflected on it, do you wish you were racing him Sunday after the back and forth season you’ve had, or are you glad to have him out of the way?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Well, I still think I’m going to have to race him.  Until someone proves otherwise that they’re going to win the race and not be part of the Final Four, I’m going to assume you still have to beat all 38 guys to win, and Harvick is one of them.  I continued to have conversations with Kevin this week, just talking about the season and kind of ‑‑ it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to go head to head and things like that, even though we will, it’s just different.  Most of the year we kind of looked at it’s head to head, me and him, right.  I think obviously in my mind he was deserving of racing for a championship but didn’t earn it because of the system, right.  He had a couple mediocre finishes, not races but just finishes, and it didn’t allow him to move on, even though he’s put together just an unbelievable season.

We’ve had those conversations, and certainly I’m not going to view if we win it any different whether he was in or out I guess you could say.  I feel proud that we made it, and this is a great accomplishment for our team, and we’re obviously very worthy of the championship if we do get it done.

Were those conversations with Kevin, were those by text or phone, and how is he handling this?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Well, I’m sure he’s frustrated.  I mean, who wouldn’t be.  I mean, I’ve talked to Rodney, I’ve talked to Kevin, and yeah, I mean, I understand their pain.  I mean, it easily could have been the other way around, right, and they’re sitting there and they’re talking to us about, man, it sucks, you guys deserve it but you’re not there, right.

It could have went either way, but luckily we were on the good end of it, but certainly I understand ‑‑ I can understand the pain they probably feel.

I don’t think that anyone ‑‑ it would be hard for me to say, and you probably should ask them, but would they take a three‑win season and make it to the Final Four and not winning a championship or nine wins and not making the Final Four?  I wouldn’t, I would take the nine wins and move on.  It’s been a great season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the mental part is the main part he sees because you guys are so evenly matched, that somebody, some team will self‑destruct or crumble.  I know you can identify with that on any team as you compete for the highest level of the championship of the NASCAR Cup Series, but as the quarterback of your team, how do you ‑‑ you talked about golf and being loose and staying away from it; how do you help or do anything to prevent that mental crumble, that mistake, that overthinking kind of issue?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I would say from my perspective it’s just focusing on what I can control and not anything else.  It’s not up to me to make the strategy call, it’s not up to me to prepare the race car, put the setup in it, it’s up to me to drive it to the best of my ability.  It’s up to me to prepare for the weekend like I’ve been preparing all year long.  All I can do is control what I can control, and I’ll live with the result no matter what that is.

Yeah, I mean, where things can get sideways is when you start second‑guessing yourself, and I certainly think that ‑‑ I feel from my perspective I won’t second‑guess any moves that I make, and last year I had no regrets.  Really the last two times I’ve raced for championships I’ve had no regrets.  I mean, our strategy call in 2014, staying out with nine laps to go when we were running good in the race anyway, we didn’t need to, that wasn’t my decision, but it was our team’s decision.  I did the best I could driving and it came up short.  And last year same thing, I did the best I could driving, and our play didn’t work.

It’s just I feel better about knowing that what my capabilities are, I know what I know and I also know what I don’t know.  And so what I don’t know is that it’s not up to me to try to do other people’s jobs and prevent them from making mistakes.  Let everyone do what they need to do.

It seems like you have a healthy attitude where you’re talking about, hey, getting to the Final Four is the key thing, whatever happens then happens.  You’ve been saying that all along.  But it doesn’t sound like you’re just saying that, it does not seem like you’re just saying that.  In believing that, do you think you take the stress away because you’re not putting too much stress on yourself, but I don’t think you’re faking it, I think you’re doing that because you honestly believe it?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I do believe it.  I believe it ‑‑ the reason I believe it this year is because I believed it last year and I knew how I took last year.  I moved on.  Literally days after, like I was over it.  I was like, man, we didn’t win.  It sucks, we still had an awesome year.  It can’t be overlooked, like this is two years in a row we’ve won the Daytona 500 and made it to the Final Four.

It’s just I’m happy with where we’re at.  We won one more race than we won last year at least; we win this weekend we tie my career high.  We’re in a good place.  We’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and we’re going to just ‑‑ listen, one quote is that I have to live with the result, you know why, because I can’t change it.  I have to live with it no matter what, and you can’t harp on the past.

With all of your success at Phoenix, and you’ve done very, very well there in the past, what are the new variables at Phoenix that kind of give you just a little bit of pause maybe heading into this weekend, things that you can’t account for until you actually get in the car?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Well, you know, there’s certainly some disadvantages.  One of them is self‑inflicted, is that we didn’t have the spring race to test.  Where I think we’re really good as a race team is adapting from one race early in the year to adapting and making adjustments and being better at that race in the second time around.

I got in a wreck so early in the spring that I tore up the car and we didn’t get any good data to base a setup off of, so we’re going to have to go from scratch there, where my competitors ran pretty much all the race and got some good information.  But hey, that’s what computers are for, right?  I give my best shot and best guess what we need to work on and learn from, and let the guys at JGR figure out what they need to put under me.

That’s one disadvantage.  The other is we can’t lean on last year’s success.  Last year the aerodynamic package was completely different on the car, so you can’t take any past results and apply them to this weekend whatsoever in my mind.  I think it’s just ‑‑ it would be naïve to do that.

When you win on Sunday, there are a boatload of people up here that follow your every move and were there when this all kicked off so many years ago.  I know you don’t want to be superstitious, but plans to bring the trophy up here and celebrate with a lot of those people if and when you are fortunate enough to finally bring it home?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Certainly.  You know, I’m one of those Stanley Cup guys where I don’t like to touch the trophy before you actually win it, so I’ve never actually touched a NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.  I want to be able to touch it.

I’m just curious with the finale moving to a short track or shorter track and the potential for contact, closer competition in one sense, what is a driver’s discussion with the devil about what they’ll do at the end of the race and with what’s at stake?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Yeah, I mean, I think everyone ‑‑ I answered this question earlier, and I think that everyone has got their own etiquette that they play by and their own internal rules which they play by.

I think I’m probably a little more of a purist than what some of the younger guys that come into the sport now are.  I mean, you see truck races and Xfinity races and guys just kind of running all over each other.  You know, and that might just be the way racing is now.  I don’t know.  But it’s just not the way that I saw it back in the day, and so I modeled myself after guys that really kind of took care of their equipment and appreciated the purer side of things.  You work a guy over.

The art of working over a pass is such a beautiful thing if you can get it done.  And so nowadays it’s just like, you just get frustrated after two laps and you knock the guy out of the way and move on and you don’t even have to say sorry later.  It just becomes expected.

Certainly within this Final Four everyone will have their own feelings about what they think is allowed and what not, but we’ve seen people within this group also make aggressive moves and everyone else is there watching.  So it’s like, well, you can’t be mad if it comes back around to you because you’ve done it in the past.

So you kind of give that open invitation when you see that.

Again, I won’t race any particular person differently based off of any ethics that they have or lack of.  I’m just going to race the purest race I can run, and hopefully it’s enough to win.

Also with this week having the opportunity to have guests, I’m assuming will you have your daughters with you this weekend?  And if so, what will that be like to have them there at the track for probably the first time for most of the year, and also will Jordan be in Phoenix this weekend?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I just talked to him, and I don’t think he has plans to come out here.  I don’t know.  I mean, he can do whatever he wants to do.  But kids, yeah, the plan is to have my kids out.  That’s going to be fantastic, if anything, just to spend time with them.

One of the great things about our schedule has been this year is we’ve been able to fly in, fly out.  We’ve had more time at home to spend with family, so certainly got some key people, family and friends, that are going to be here.  You know, it stinks that you’re kind of held to a certain limited number, but I kind of understand how it all works, and certainly I’m just appreciative to at least be able to bring some family.

It seems like a lot of the end of your stage wins this year you’ll do something like either let a guy stay on the lead lap, maybe let somebody back on the lead lap, so I’m assuming you’re doing that for a reason to stack up those favors.  Is this now when you cash those in, or are you expecting to get more room on Sunday?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I believe there’s checks and balances.  I believe that there’s ‑‑ that’s what me and my friends call it, friendship bank.  You have deposits and withdrawals.  We talked about this last year.  Yeah, I mean, I’ve cut a lot of competitors breaks, especially at the end of stages, letting guys stay on the lead lap and things like that, and yeah, sure, you hope it comes back around, but there are no practices of that.  Drivers have really, really short memories, depending on whether it’s good or bad for them.

But I believe I’m in a very good position with my competitors that I’ve cut breaks to.  But not everyone will see it that way.  I mean, and that’s okay.  I’m going to go out there and try to earn it any way that I can, the easy way, the hard way, but certainly I believe that when it comes down to the final race, and I’ve seen it in the past, that if you’re typically a guy that carries favors with people, I’ve noticed in the final race they cut you breaks.

I try to put as many deposits as I can throughout the year when it really doesn’t cost me much, but it would be a benefit for them to hopefully get that in return.  But if I don’t, I definitely don’t hold any grudges whatsoever.

Chris had said earlier this week that this is kind of a good place for you guys to be in in the sense of you had to go out and win this clutch race at Phoenix last year just to get to Homestead.  Do you agree that this is kind of a favorable position, that it can kind of be a rallying cry for this team this weekend, that you guys have done this before at this track?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Yeah, we have, and listen, last year was way unexpected.  I expected to go there and run good, but not ‑‑ the race goes green, we had a realistic chance to lap the entire field, and we were just so fast and the car was unbelievable that I couldn’t believe what I was driving.

I know that our team was capable of it.  It was like, wow, they needed to bring it and they brought it, and I have no doubt that this weekend will be no different, that every effort will be put on us as there was last year when we had to lock ourselves in.

It’s a little different this year in the Final Four being that all the resources within JGR we’ve got working on our race car and focusing on our race car.  Yeah, it’s encouraging for me to especially go to a track that we had to win last year and got it done to again this year having to win to get it done.

How will this be different showing up and racing and not having to go through a weekend of nerves with practice and qualifying and all the activities that normally surround a championship weekend?

DENNY HAMLIN:  It’s different.  It’s just different.  Yeah, I don’t know whether I like it better or worse, but certainly to me there’s less pressure because you don’t have ‑‑ you’re not around all these people all the time asking you or saying good luck or whatever.  Just hanging out with friends and family and whatnot and enjoying the weekend, enjoying the weather, and just for me, just going to relax and have a great weekend.

We’re going to have a great weekend no matter what, and so I think that it certainly is different being able to just kind of show up and race.

Now, things are a little different because you’ve got a few more media hits before the race starts where typically on race day this year it’s been just show up and get in the car and go, but yeah, we’ll still have that weird feeling of is this really the big moment or not.

You mentioned the friendship bank, and you’ve mentioned that you talked to Kevin Harvick, so I’m curious if you think that ‑‑ how he races this weekend, does the friendship bank sort of apply to him, or because of the situation, do you expect him to be running like he’s running for a championship, or do you think he’s going to still give you guys some room?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I think Kevin has always been really fair as far as being fair to the competitors and being respectful when it’s either his day or not his day.  I suspect, and I would think, that they probably come loaded and ready to go out and show that they should be champions, right, and I don’t expect him to waffle around and just kind of let all four of us go race for it.  My guess, if I had to predict, it would be that those guys are going to feel vindictive and want to go out there and beat up on everybody.

I don’t expect any favors from anyone, like I said, but certainly I think if I had to guess from their perspective, it’s going to be let’s show this group that we’re really worthy.

You talked about mid‑season sort of racing smarter and you felt like that was something that had changed this year versus seasons past.  I’m curious if you still feel like that’s continued through this playoffs and if you feel like that’ll be a difference maker in potentially winning a championship.

DENNY HAMLIN:  Yeah, I mean, I think the mental side of things is a big part of winning.  You know, there’s a reason why the winners and the champions of this sport are aged.

I just think that there’s ‑‑ with everything so close, whether it be the equipment, the cars, the pit crews, everyone is so close that as a driver, you have to find an edge anywhere you can, and if it’s on the mental side, that’s the biggest gap that you can make up is going out there and getting a mental advantage or being smarter than your competition.

I don’t claim to be smarter than them, but I just want to work hard and make sure that I’m as informed as I possibly can be, be prepared for anything that gets thrown my way, and as you get older, you learn to identify mistakes that you made in the past that you now need to account for when you are working towards being a champion.

Like I said, I’ve had so many failures that it’s created a logbook of things that I need to be aware of this time around.  Certainly I believe that there’s something to being older and the mental side of things and having that advantage.

Heading into the weekend, everyone is talking about Chase maybe getting his first trophy, talking about Brad and Joey getting their second.  The only time they’re really talking about you is to talk about how your team has struggled a bit during the playoffs.  Does this give you an underdog mentality, and do you think you can sneak up on some people now?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Not really.  I don’t think that our competition underestimates us at all.  I think that our results haven’t been very good over the last 10 weeks, but I think our performance has been good.  They are not mutually exclusive.  I think when you have so many elements that goes into your finishing position, you have to have all of them aligned for it all to come together to equal one.

But I think our on‑track performance has been ‑‑ I think through the playoffs, we’ve led as many laps as ‑‑ we average it all out, we’ve led as many laps and won as many races ‑‑ maybe not won as many races but been in contention to win as many as we have all year.  I don’t think anyone kind of ‑‑ I think it’s unlikely anyone considers us an underdog, especially our competition.

You touched on it early on, but getting here to the Final Four is a successful season in your mind; can you expand on that a little bit for me, and do you think in this specific era, Championship 4 appearances may mean more than the titles themselves?

DENNY HAMLIN:  Well, I think the titles will always mean more because it’s, okay, not only did you get to the Final Four, you also beat your competition, so it will always hold a little bit higher regard.  But certainly I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season.

I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make it to the Final Four.  It’s never win a championship.  It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35‑, 36‑week body of work.

When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds, and you’ve put yourself ‑‑ it’s more of, to me, an idea of your season and how it’s gone.  When I look at the Final Four, every one of these guys are worthy.  I don’t think anyone faked their way through these playoffs when it comes to the competition that we’re going to be up against.  It’s a very worthy four, but certainly I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four.  It’s never to actually win the championship.  That’s just a very hard goal, considering it’s just one race and there’s so many X factors that ‑‑ you can be perfect.  Usually when you’re perfect, you determine your own outcome, but in racing you can be perfect and there can be a crash in front of you, and you’re done.  It wasn’t your fault, your team did everything perfectly, so you have to kind of gauge ‑‑ you can’t just put all your eggs in a last‑race championship basket of whether your season was a success or not.

There’s a very legitimate argument to be made that you’re the greatest active driver without a championship, and whenever we talk about greatest driver to never win a championship, we usually talk about Mark Martin.  Do you think it’s unfair for that to be out there or for you to be compared to Mark Martin in that sense, or considering the career that you’ve had to date, is it almost a compliment to be compared to a Hall of Famer like Mark?

DENNY HAMLIN:  I’ve said for a year now that I never would consider any comparison to Mark Martin an insult.  I’ll take those comparisons all day because the guy is a badass race car driver that nobody wanted to face week in and week out, nobody.  Not Dale Earnhardt, nobody wanted to face Mark Martin.

I think that championships ‑‑ I get it, it’s very, very important.  It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more.  I like where I’m at.

THE MODERATOR:  I’ll end it by letting you know, Denny, that Steve Letarte is staying at a house that has a tennis court, so if you find yourself in a jam and need a late‑night game, Letarte is your man.

DENNY HAMLIN:  I like that.  Thanks.

THE MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for your time, Denny.  Best of luck on Sunday.  Thanks to everyone for joining.