Las Vegas Recap: Denny Hamlin and the #11 FedEx Racing team posted its best finish of the season with a seventh-place result in the most recent race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 6). A pre-race engine change negated a 17th-place starting position and moved Hamlin to the rear of the field for the green flag, and the team was never able to capitalize on strategy to improve track position. Picking off positions during long green flag runs and tidy work on pit road helped the #11 Toyota move up in the running order during the 267-lap event won by Carl Edwards. The finish moved Hamlin up six spots -- from 14th to eighth -- in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after three of 36 races, as the team heads east following an off-weekend for a 500-lap race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Hamlin is 18 points behind leader Tony Stewart.
Back at Bristol: Hamlin is making his 11th career Cup Series start at Bristol this weekend in the #11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, looking for that elusive first win on the half-mile, high-banked ‘bullring.’ The 30-year-old has three top-five finishes and five top-10 results in 10 previous trips to the track, including a second-place run in the spring 2009 event. Bad luck has bitten the #11 FedEx team a couple times in previous spring races at Bristol. In 2007, Hamlin led 177 of 504 laps before fuel pickup issues 20 laps from the finish caused intermittent power and a 14th-place result. One year later, Hamlin led 98 laps -- including at the start of a ‘green-white-checkered’ overtime finish -- when pickup issues arose again and yielded a sixth-place finish. Hamlin finished 19th in the spring 2010 event at Bristol after an early cut tire and contact with the wall caused damage to the #11 machine. A broken drive shaft in the most recent race at Bristol last August relegated the team to a 34th-place finish, 27 laps off the pace after extensive time in the garage for repairs. In total, Hamlin has led 282 laps at Bristol, with an average finish of 14.6.
HAMLIN CONVERSATION – BRISTOL: What does Bristol Motor Speedway mean to you? “Bristol is such a special place to every driver. When you pull off Exide Blvd. and see this huge arena where we actually get to race, it’s unbelievable to me. My family attended a lot of races when I was growing up, and Bristol was one of the tracks we had to see. I came here for the first time when I was 13 or 14 years old and it has been special ever since. Pre-race gets your chills going and it’s awesome to hear the rumble of the cars inside the track.”
How special is it to have the race named after former track president Jeff Byrd? “I have only been around for five or six years, so I didn’t get to know Jeff (Byrd) as well as some of the other drivers, but you can’t say enough about what he did for the track and their fans. He did a lot to make Bristol fun for the competitors, but kept it such a fun experience for the fans. Whenever people ask what track they should go see a race, I always tell them -- and I’m sure a lot of drivers do, too -- that they have to watch a race at Bristol. Jeff is a big part of that.”
How has the progressive banking changed the racing at Bristol? “We’ve seen the new race track at Bristol provide great racing and great finishes over the past couple years. It just allows so much more passing. For me, it brings out the best racing. You don’t have to dump a guy if you’re faster than them. One thing that hasn’t changed is the trophy. It has been the same trophy for years, and I love the old-school type trophies. The Bristol trophy has a lot of history to it, and hopefully I can add one to my collection.”
As a basketball fan, who do you think will win the NCAA tournament? “I am going to have to go with Duke this year. I think they have the coach and the experience to make a deep run in the tournament. It seems like a couple of those guys have been there forever, but that’s what you need when it’s ‘one-and-done.’ All of those guys went through it last year. I’m just surprised that the (Virginia Tech) Hokies didn’t make it. I thought they were in after they beat Duke a couple weeks ago, but I guess not.”