Q&A with Denny Hamlin ahead of the Daytona 500

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was made available to media via videoconference prior to the Daytona 500 next Sunday:

DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing

Has Michael Jordan been more involved with the race team in recent weeks?
“I would say that we’ve talked more in the last couple of weeks, but he’s just excited. The involvement on the race team, he’s got a great team of people that I work with and really gives us a lot of autonomy to make sure that we’re doing stuff the way that we see fit. So it’s working well.”

What would it mean to make history and win a third-consecutive Daytona 500?
“This is a big opportunity for us and my team and myself personally, it’s just I never would have imagined that we’d be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn’t have any. I always think about, in these situations and anytime you get asked, I think about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision at the end to finish it off. It would be by far my biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”

Can you talk about Chris Gabehart’s role in this effort to win a third-straight Daytona 500?
“He kind of allows me to kind of do what I do on the superspeedways. He tries to give me the fastest car that he can possibly give me, but it all comes down to the end, right? It’s like is your car damaged? Can you, do you have any teammates at the end? Can you make the right moves and the right decision? For him, a lot of it is around strategy. It’s around making sure that he puts me in a good position at the end to be up front when it really counts. So that’s where our communication and our partnership really works well on these superspeedways.”

What has changed in you since the 2018 season?
“I didn’t take for granted that we win every year and that’s just part of what we do. 2013, we went down to the wire and didn’t win until the very last race at Homestead, which I think 2018 was just kind of one of those wake up years of like, I need to get better. Everything needs to get better and it just kind of went through a transition there where I really kind of worked on myself on and off the racetrack and really focused a lot of my efforts on getting better as a race car driver. And really Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) did a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week. And so when he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free rein to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. And I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked, and it’s worked well. And we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”

What do you know of Michael Jordan’s background with NASCAR?
“He’s (Michael Jordan) just a big fan of the sport and always has been. And so now he’s embedded in it very heavily. He’s excited obviously, about Daytona next week and he’s as excited as he’s ever been, that’s for sure.”

How does the new schedule for NASCAR this season change your team’s approach to try to make it back to the Championship Four?
“Now that’s a good question, thought out, nice question there. I just think that it does play a role. I mean, when we look at our season goals we have numbers we’d like to get to, but in the end, you know where we’ve had success, a lot of those tracks are gone. This year you go from 20 550 races to 12. Road courses, we didn’t have any wins in the last two years. So that goes from two to seven. So the schedule hurts us as far as our historical data is concerned and kind of that success that me and Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) have had, but we find different goals, like okay, to get to the wins that we feel like we need to be at, to make the final four, to have the bonus points that we need to carry us just in case we have a bad second to last round, like we did last year, we need to get to a certain amount of points. How do we get to those points? What is the avenue that we need to take to get those points, especially with the schedule shifts. So for me, it’s working on my road course skills. I’ve got to get better at them. And I mean it’s a bigger part of our schedule now. It’s not something you can just kind of write off and say, you know, the road to the championship, doesn’t lead through these races so it’s not where I’m going to focus my effort. You’ve got to look at the numbers and say, okay, this is a significant part of our schedule. How can I get better as a driver and improve on them to give ourselves a better opportunity to win on those tracks that I historically have a low winning percentage on. I thought that we were pretty good on the road courses last year. We obviously had some great finishes, we ran up front, but I just think I need to get a little better to really be one of those guys. There’s going to be a threat at it every single time we hit the track. So the road to the Championship four, in short, is a different road for us than what it was over the last couple of years.”

Why did you feel Mike Wheeler would be the best fit for the crew chief role with Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing?
“I thought he (Mike Wheeler) was a great person. I’ve had a lot of success with him on the racetrack, and it was going to be a person that was going to be able to easily communicate between what I can bring to the table and the asset that I can be to the team. He’s already been a JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) guy for all of his career, been associated in the Toyota brand now for 12 years, so it was the right fit for this team. He’s done an absolutely phenomenal job. I was taking my dad through the race shop, giving them a little tour yesterday evening and he was like, ‘Who does all this? Who got all this stuff together?’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, ‘Wheels’ is a big part of that.’ He’s done a phenomenal job with the whole team, getting everything ready he just was the right fit for me on the ownership side and a lot of that goes to our past history.”

Can any of Michael Jordan’s experience with Phil Jackson crossover to the relationship with Mike Wheeler and Bubba Wallace?
“I think that you have two extremely, in the Michael (Jordan) and Phil (Jackson) thing, they both had success even without each other at times. You had two great people that were great at what they did, and when they came together, they were super great. So, I think that as long as Bubba is continuing to be better as a race car driver and Wheels (Mike Wheeler) is open to new ideas on the car side — they both are great. I think the results that Mike Wheeler had with Matt DiBenedetto in 2019 was really, really good. They performed at a very high level with honestly less technology and information and, and equipment than what they’re going to be having this year. So I certainly believe that they’re set up to have good success.”

Does it blow you away that you’re poised to potentially win a third consecutive Daytona 500?
“I find the most pride in that. I think it’s harder than it ever has been. I mean, go back and watch races from 2004, 2005, like there were just five or six superior cars that could pull away from the pack or they just were better, cars were strung out more, the wrecks weren’t, you didn’t have as much attrition as what you have now. It’s harder. It is truly, in my mind, harder to win now because the field is closer. The chances of you getting in wrecks are higher and everyone’s car is so close. It’s very, very difficult. And so I just think that it is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game. And I think that there’s a lot of guys that are very, very good on the superspeedways that just have been very, very unlucky in the last few years. We’ve been fortunate, we’ve been on the other side of it. That hammer hasn’t hit on us yet, but I mean, we could break out of the next five Daytona 500 wins, who knows right. We’ve been fortunate, but it’s still, in the end, a skill game and making sure you’re putting yourself in the right position. I take a lot of pride in, I really do, — they’re definitely not by chance or by accident.”

What kind of race will we see at the Daytona road course this season and what makes Chase Elliott such a strong road racer?
“I think that certainly he’s (Chase Elliott) got a lot of skill first of all, on the road courses. Ever since, was it probably two or three years ago in my mind, him and Martin (Truex Jr.) were kind of the two elite guys on the road courses. I’ve always kind of considered myself currently in the talks of like a 3.5 to six to seven guy depending on how my car is that day, but they find a way to win and be up front even when their car is not perfect. So to me, they’re kind of head and shoulders over everyone else. I hope that we see a good race. I mean, the Clash has always been a very exciting race because it’s been short, it’s been on the superspeedway, there’s been sparks flying and big crashes and things like that. You know what, everyone loves road course racing until you get too much of it. And then like, ‘Oh, well, that’s enough of that.’ Then what’s the next thing we can do. So I just hope we don’t oversaturate it and it could get strung out. I mean, at one time of the race, I mean, it was exciting at the end because there was a caution, but I mean, he had like a nine second lead over me at some point. That could happen as well. And then, you know, you’ll hear an uproar about the need to put it back on the oval.”

What is your reaction to Southside Speedway closing down and how has this pandemic impacted local short tracks and ultimately impacting the careers of young racers?
“Well, it certainly will have a long-term effect. I don’t think we’ll know that for a really long time, but it’s disappointing to say the least, but I mean, now these tracks are doing everything they can. I mean, they’ve got sanction fees out the wazoo if they want to be NASCAR affiliated. It’s a hard business to be in. I hate seeing, these tracks that have been around forever shutting down. We see it in the real world as well, right. I mean, restaurants that have been open forever shutting down, businesses, small businesses. Short tracks or small business, they’re not a big business by any means, they rely on people going through that front gate. They have to pay a purse, the guys that are racing for little money compared to what the cost of it is. It’s just, the whole thing is broken. I don’t know how to fix it, but we certainly need our short tracks to be our feeder into the Cup Series. It’s no different than any other sport. It starts in high school and then junior college and just keeps going on up and you find yourself in the pros, you know, so we need that base level to keep the sport strong in the long run.”

How have you been managing your time between driver for Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing?
“I think from my standpoint, I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it. For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me in the long run to continue to be successful. And that would be a good thing for my race team as well, is that as long as I keep my on track to success, I can continue to be an asset and that’s something that is good for them as well. This is where my focus is now I’ll spend a day or a day and a half during the week that I typically would have off in the middle of the week, that will be my time to concentrate on 23X1, but, my preparation time, my post-race time will be unchanged here on the driver’s side.”

What is your relationship like with Ben Kennedy and what do you feel his role will be moving forward?
“I haven’t talked to Ben (Kennedy) a whole lot, but I need to grow that relationship with him. I have a lot of questions that maybe he can help me with, but he’s certainly part of NASCAR’s future. I almost picture or kind of figure him to be kind of like what Coy (Gibbs) is with Joe Gibbs Racing. Like he’s in all the meetings. He never really says a whole lot, but he’s listening and taking notes. Certainly he’s the succession plan. He’s the driver, he understands the competition side. So certainly think he can be a great asset to this sport going forward and really, I want to grow that relationship with him and have talks with him throughout the year.”

What do you think 23XI Racing can accomplish when it comes to implementing change within NASCAR?
“Well, a lot because we have a big platform, right? This is a platform that’s a lot different. Michael Jordan has a huge following and that following is now peaking and having an interest in NASCAR. I think that you have a lot of people that have never attended NASCAR races before that will probably go knowing that their favorite guy might be there or what have you. But certainly I think that those are discussions that are ongoing with our team to figure out what is our plan for action, as far as that’s concerned. I think we’re working with our sponsors as well. It’s important to them. We’re running a race team, but you know, this is also about a bigger message and it starts from the executive side where we’re extremely diverse. And so I really believe that hopefully we can continue to push change and make the sport even more inclusive. I think NASCAR has done a phenomenal job, they did a great job last year with everything that went on, whether it be the Confederate flag ban. And they’re really pushing boundaries that they’d never really pushed before. And certainly if that opens up the fan base for NASCAR, that’s going to be better for everyone.”

How have you seen the sport move at a different pace after what happened with Bubba Wallace last season?
“There’s a lot of opportunities. Bubba (Wallace) certainly had a great relationship with the sponsors that we have this year. We have two new ones as well, that weren’t part of Bubba Wallace or this race team last year that are new to the sport. So we really feel like there’s a lot of opportunities to use this platform to definitely voice change. And it’s just going to take some time. Nothing’s going to happen overnight. Again, it’s part of our plan going forward, but we would need to be strategic with it, and we need to make sure that we’re doing it the right way.”

You mentioned running a Super Late Model race in an interview earlier this year. Is that something that is going to happen?
“It’s going to happen. I’ve kind of had discussions already with some people about what I’d like to do. I don’t think that just showing up to the Snowball and being competitive, you know, for first time in a car that I very rarely run it but maybe once or twice, I’m not going to go down there and do that. So it’s going to take a few tests here and there, I’d like to run a warm-up race somewhere before. So I believe that I can work it in on off weeks and things like that where it doesn’t distract us from anything else. And truly for me, I think everyone knows that I like distractions. Distractions are good for you. You’ve got to get away from the grind of this sport at times. Even if it’s racing something else, like it’s, it takes my mind off of my daily grind of being a race car driver and a team owner. So this will be a lot of fun and it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do for the last five or six years. And now hopefully going to make that happen.”

Do you feel the platform of 23XI Racing can help diversity efforts at the grassroots level?
“Well, I mean, certainly that’s a big goal and a lofty one and one that I’d love to do. I mean, sure. I’d love to have 23X1 in all kinds of different series and have a feeder coming all the way up to the Cup Series. It’s not on my radar right this second, but certainly it’s something that does interest me in the long-term. At this point I can tell you, a few months ago it was like, boy, let’s just get to Daytona. Can we have a car that makes circles, that’s going to be the key. But I feel good about where we are now and now as the season gets going, we start racing. Now we can start to focus on, okay, what’s our long-term growth plan. And where do we want to go with this?”

Is there a certain type of handling you’re looking for in your car for Daytona?
“There is. I would say that I typically have my setup a little bit different from my teammates simply because of how I like to drive and the positions I need to put myself in at the end of the race to make aggressive moves. I need my car to do certain things for that. And it may not always make it the fastest, but it’s over time I’ve learned I need my car to do certain things to be able to make the moves I need to make at the end of the race to win. I think it’s a little bit kind of off the beaten path of what just simulation says, ‘Oh, this will be the fastest.’ I think that I typically just say, I need the car to do this. I don’t care if it’s slower. Like if it does this, then I can make the moves I need to, and I can manipulate the air and the situation I’m around enough to make the difference.”

Is there one thing about team ownership that has really stood out to you in the last four months?
“I mean really just having trust in the people that we hired to do their jobs. That’s been the biggest help in all of this is that I’ve got a lot of people with a ton of experience over there and whenever I go by there, which is pretty often, it’s like, ‘Yep, that got done, that got done, that got done.’ And it’s just, they’re adults and they’re professionals, they know what they’re doing. And so, although it kept me up at night at times, worrying about little tiny details, you know, these guys, they got it and slowly but surely getting my confidence in the sense of letting these guys just do what they do and not have to check up behind them because I just worry about things like, what have we missed? What do you know, do we have this? Do we have that? They’re on it and just gives me the confidence every time I go by and see that all the solid stuff that’s getting done that I can trust them.”

What have your emotions been over the last few months after reflecting on last season and looking ahead to this season?
“It’s slowly built up and I’m in the excited phase now. These guys are working their tails off both at Joe Gibbs Racing and 23X1, they’re burning the midnight oil, literally. But it’s and exciting moment for me. I think I was saying the other day, I was just like, ‘I can’t believe, I would never have believed one year ago that I’d be fielding a Cup car and for the Daytona 500. It catches me off guard at times and hard to believe. And then I think about, we’ve got history here to make with our FedEx team to win three in a row. I mean, there’s just a lot of really good things going on with me personally and professionally, a lot to be grateful for. There’s been trying times, but a lot of it has been with the race team, like when you’ve got to buy everything from scratch, like, are things going to get delivered in time and there’s snow storms and there’s, COVID and it’s like this is delayed, that’s delayed. That’s where the trying times are, making sure you got everything you need to go compete. Over the last month, the confidence has gone through the roof. Everything is caught up on schedule and seeing the cars go through the shop now fully wrapped on the setup plate, getting the final adjustments, that’s exciting to me. And then when I go to JGR, it’s like, is this the car? Is this the car we’re going to lose for a year? Is this the one that’s going to make history? It’s great to see how excited my JGR team is as well.”