What kind of challenges will Tony Stewart face coming back from an injury?

“I think Tony (Stewart) has less challenges because he’s more talented. I think he’s shown he wins in everything he gets in. I think that not being in the car for him -- although it’s for a longer extended period of time -- will come relatively easy. I think it’s going to be more about team performance than anything. That’s what it’s all about for all of us early in the year is whether our team did all of the homework that they needed to do in the off-season to be competitive.”

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Covy Moore

Do drivers lose some of their ‘racing edge’ in the off-season?

“A lot of drivers talk about they feel like have they forgot how to drive a race car in the last two months, but we’ve done so much off-season testing that I know that’s not true. It is -- it's good for us though that the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off. We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it. So, I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race. It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before.”

Were you surprised to win your first Unlimited race?

“Yes. A lot of things worked out great for us that particular event and obviously superspeedway racing at anything can happen. I was just so grateful. I remember on the starting grid just to be a part of the race I lucked up and got a pole in those last few races of the season I ran at the end for FedEx in 2005 and so it got me into there. The next thing you know I’m thinking let me just try to work on some friendships for next week in the 500 and next thing you know we find ourselves in a position to win it and Jimmie (Johnson) gave me a push down the backstretch, Tony (Stewart) gave me a push down the frontstretch and next thing you know we got to the line first. They gave me the trophy, the money and the checkered flag so I guess I won.”

Do you think NASCAR is making the right changes with the foam in the seats for safety reasons?

“I understand what they’re doing. Ultimately, all of us want to be as low as we can possibly in the car for performance reasons. That’s why we do it. I didn’t have a whole lot of padding underneath my seat for performance reasons. I don’t know how much that foam is going to change things because ultimately as soon as you sit down you are going to be compressing it down into the seat, so I don’t know how much -- and I think my wreck in particular had such an access compression that I don’t know if foam would’ve changed much of anything. It’s just a wreck that they don’t normally see any kind of compression in other wrecks. It’s always just head-on stuff where you’re coming out of the seat or you’re getting knocked back in the seat. Nothing being pushed down in the seat. I appreciate everything they’re doing. Obviously, I’m blessed every day that I came into the sport when it’s as safe as it’s ever been because 15, 20 years ago this was a very risky sport week in and week out.”

Were you pleased to see NASCAR act quickly in race track adjustments following your accident?

“Yeah, I think there was a lot that went into me hitting that particular part of the wall. I was trying to save the car and realized last minute I wasn’t going to do it. Had I just hit the brakes I wouldn’t have had that problem. I was trying to save it, get to the finish line in any means possible whether it be through pit road or the infield. But, yeah, I looked at a lot of race tracks from the aerial view that my team showed me and there’s a lot of unprotected walls out there. I’m not going to pick on any race tracks, but they know which ones they are that need to have safer barriers on the inside walls. I mean, it’s crazy to see the highlighted areas around our race tracks that are not safer barrier, but I understand it costs money and all of that. More that goes into it than just what we want all of the time.”

Is there any advice you can give Matt Kenseth after also finishing second in the points?

“I think if anyone -- and you hear this year in and year out -- if anyone’s not prone to have a hangover it’d probably be Matt (Kenseth). But, I don’t know. I think it’s such a crapshoot every year of who’s going to finish where. I mean, where did the third-place guy finish every single year the next year? Who knows. I don’t know what it is. I really can’t answer it, but it’s tough I guess. It’s not like you put all of your eggs in one basket for the end of the year and next thing you know you’ve got nothing for the beginning of the year. It’s all the preparations are all the same. As a driver is it the confidence? Maybe. I know confidence is very underrated in our sport. That’s maybe the only thing I can pinpoint it to. How did that driver’s team do the following year? Was it their team that had as much of a hangover as the driver or what was it? I don’t know.”

Do you go into this year as the ‘weak link’ at Joe Gibbs Racing?

“I don’t think so. Not through at least the testing that I’ve seen. I’m up to speed, to say the least, within our race team. Where even last year we were a little bit off of our teammates and we’re going to have a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the year because ultimately we have a bad parking spot in the garage and we’re going to miss the first 10 minutes of practice every week -- yes, you’re still going to be parked in the garage. Not the haulers, but the cars. We were so far back in points we would miss the first 10 minutes of practice every single week. So, until we get ourselves back up in points where we should be I think the first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we’ll be fine. We’ll start the year, I think, we’re going to start as strong as JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) starts.”

What keeps you up at night?

“The only thing that’s keeping me up at night right now is the anticipation. Usually you’re kind of thinking about the grind’s about to start and you’re about to spend a lot of time away from home, but for me I’m one of the few drivers that couldn’t get this off-season over quick enough because as soon as we hit the race track 2013 is over and 2014 has started and we can stop talking about last year. I’m excited for that part of it. So, for me, it’s the anticipation and what I’ve seen from testing I believe that we’re going to be one of the guys that come out pretty strong pretty early and that’s typically not how we start anyway.”

Is there anything you can take from your experience last year to help you moving forward?

“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways, but what I take from it the most I would say would be just the appreciation of when you do run well and I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy. Really didn’t have to prepare for it. I just showed up and we did it. And, now I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good. You can’t just rely on talent to do it. Looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better? I think drivers prepare for weekends as much as the teams in the sense of what they have to do. I just don’t think now you can just show up, sit down in your seat, not know anything about your car and run as competitive as some of the guys that win each week.”

Did you even know what Pilates was before your injury?

“I did, but it was something that I needed to try obviously and heard that I needed to try and once I did it immediately felt better and I just kind of got addicted to it since then. It’s not pretty by any means, especially for a guy like myself being in a Pilates studio. It’s not pretty, but it works for me.”

How has being a father changed you?

“In a lot of ways. It’s hard for me -- I think you would have to rely on the people outside of me how have I changed attitude-wise. But, I feel like I’m a better person. I definitely enjoy the time at home a whole lot more. I’m on full dad duty this weekend while she’s (Jordan Fish, girlfriend) out of town. Yep, I did (bring my mom). But, all I can think about is bringing her to media day and I think that’s a little inappropriate so I’ve got an hour left and then I’m going to go and see her and I’ll be happy again. It’s fun. Every day she’s smarter and half says one more word and every time she sees even a picture of me now anywhere she’s saying, ‘Dada.’ So, that for me is fun and I just find joy now in different things other than -- now it’s all about her. It really is.”

Toyota Racing