DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
What is your outlook for the race weekend at Talladega? "Well, it's kind of like an off weekend for the teams, really. There's not a whole lot of adjusting you have. It's whatever you show up with is pretty much what you are going to race with. Kind of an off weekend for the traveling guys, they don't have to work on the cars and the crew chiefs can rest their minds for the week and focus on what's heading up in the schedule. Really here, you have what you have and no matter whether you have the fastest car in qualifying or you have the 35th, you always have a shot to win."
What did you do yesterday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama? "That was a really cool thing to do. I'd never been to a place where a tornado has hit in person and until you see it, it's pretty amazing. You look at all the destruction and everything and to realize that it happened a year ago, you'd think by looking around that it happened a week or two ago. Basically, a war veteran from Afghanistan and Iraq came home and his home was pretty much gone -- it was right in the path of where you see this tornado came through. So, FedEx and the Salvation Army built him a new home and last night was his first night. My crew came in and basically unload some furniture and put it all together in his house. He basically got his home back yesterday."
Do you think drivers can hook up for a tandem this weekend? "I think the 'X-factor' from Daytona to here will be temperature. I think the ambient temperature is 25 degrees warmer at least from what we raced at Daytona. I know temperature -- there were a lot of temperature issues at Daytona. I think that's going to be the wild card in the sense that I think we're all going to run pretty hot in the pack today. So, the two-car tandem, I don't see even in practice much -- you won't see much of it, I don't believe, simply because everyone is going to be very temperature limited right from the get-go. As far as those two Roush cars (Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle), I think that they were the strongest cars at Daytona and I don't think that will be much different. Everyone really kind of had a shot to win at some point, but I feel like our cars are struggling for single-car speed, but I think the pack gets our RPM where our Toyota kind of likes it and that's where we race well."
Do you think this race is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s best chance to win? "If he (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) backed up to me at Daytona, he would have won. He didn't -- he linked up to those other cars. Really, I felt like that was our only shot, or his shot to win the race at Daytona, was to backup to us to try to get around the Roush cars because they were so strong. I think he's obviously got a ton of experience and a ton of wins on this track. When you look at this schedule and you look at opportunities to win, I would say that this is one of his best shots at it."
Why do you think you've figured out Darlington? "It's tough to say. I think myself in particular, I just strive on harder race tracks to try to figure out -- the Pocono's, the Martinsville's -- tracks that just some people love and hate. It just seems like we have adapted to it and found a way to get around the track. I was there (at Darlington) not to long ago, a couple of weeks ago, and it's amazing to see how much the surface has aged just since last year. The surface was white as snow and basically that's the rock starting to come up through the asphalt again, which I think is great for that race track. You'll see a little bit more tire wear than what we had in the past. Whatever they paved that race track with seems to be pretty good stuff. I think you'll see great racing there again. For myself, I don't know, I just have a way of getting around the place -- I really can't explain it."
How was your relationship with Mike Ford last year? "I'm a huge fan of Mike (Ford, former crew chief). I can't believe it took this long for the guy to get a job. Waiting for the right opportunity and given the right opportunity, he can be very, very successful. He, in my opinion, is one of the top-five crew chiefs in this garage. I think he is the reason we won that many races when we were together. Within our shop, he didn't always have the cooperation of everyone and sometimes people didn't believe in him as much as they should or vice- versa or the other way around. You have to have everyone in the shop back you 100 percent and I think he felt everyone didn't have his back at Gibbs (Joe Gibbs Racing). It just was one of those things, in time when things are good and you're winning, everyone is willing to listen to you and do whatever you want, but when you're struggling, I think he was having a hard time buying into what he believed in."
What did your mom mean to getting you where you are today? "She was very critical to me getting where I'm at for sure. If it wasn't her arguing with my dad all the time saying we had to keep going, then we probably wouldn't have been. It's a great weekend for her. She goes to most of the races now anyway working on our souvenir hauler. She enjoys it. She was talking about it on the plane this morning, she likes being around the other moms and things like that because it's her social garage, I guess you could say. She has a lot of fun doing it and for her, it's a big day."
Could you have won Daytona? "No -- not without cooperation around us. That was the thing, I had a plan to run with the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) because we were lined up, I think second and fourth, and the two Roush cars were on the inside. I assumed I was working with him and those two cars were going to work together. At least what I thought -- our spotters talked -- that was the plan. It worked out to where I was kind of odd man out and next thing I know I was kind of running by myself. I had two Childress cars behind me, they were linked together, there was nothing I could do there. At the end, I'd say no there was absolutely nothing that I could have done to improve our finish, only make it worse. Really, we were just kind of stuck. I was surprised to see the end of Daytona turn out the way it did. I really thought the last couple laps were going to be pretty eye-opening, but really everyone kind of got in line and it was like everyone was fine with where they were at that point."
Did you learn anything at Daytona you can apply to Talladega? "Some things you can change. If you don't have the cars around you willing to work with you, there's not much you can do. For me, I'll race this race the exact same way. I plan on being really aggressive, trying to stay up front all day. Only go to the very back of the pack if I'm at a terrible position and then I'll start to make my way back to the front after that. I'm not going to race this race any different than I did Daytona because it was the most successful superspeedway race we had."
What are your memories of your first Talladega Nationwide race? "Trying to remember that specific race -- before that I ran an ARCA race here in maybe '04 or '03 -- something like that. I just remember being overwhelmed by the speed of the track. Trying to figure out how the draft works and all that stuff. I'm not sure how we ran during that Nationwide race. I do remember a car flipping over right in front of me, but I'm pretty sure we probably got in a wreck because for the first three or four years of my career superspeedway racing -- that's all I pretty much did on superspeedways was wreck. More than likely, we got into an incident. For me, it's just been a learning curve at this track. It just takes a long time to figure out how the draft works. Then we went through a transition of going to that tandem draft so then you had to learn superspeedway racing all over again. Now you're back to the pack I think and so we'll have to acclimate ourselves back again to that. It's been a constant, 'schools in session' type of weekend pretty much for the last five or six years."
Why do you think Mike Ford is so good with young drivers? "I think he (Mike Ford) helped me dramatically with the whole short track program and how I race on short tracks and things like that. I think that he's worked with such good drivers like Bill Elliott in the past and those guys like Dale Jarrett -- I think he just knows what it takes to win. Whether he's got it in his race car or the driver's capable, I think that he knows how to win. He gives really good information and I'm sure the first time that he works with Aric (Almirola) at one of the race tracks that we're good at, he's going to reel off a ton of information about how we did things and how we won at this particular track or that particular track. It's just his experience is very valuable and that's where Aric will probably strive the most. Knowing Aric's driving style, it's kind of similar to mine so they should have pretty successful relationship."
Did drivers view Regan Smith differently after he won Darlington? "Winning at Darlington does make a difference -- how everyone looked at him (Regan Smith), I don't think so. I think that everyone thought he was very capable in the right situation of winning many weeks. I know that particular race, he didn't just come out of nowhere and steal it because he didn't pit -- he was running in the top-five or six all day that day. We knew that he had a really good shot at winning once that last stop happened. I don't think I view him any differently now than I did before, but obviously having that win is something great for his resume. You look at the pictures and the names on the trophy that you get there -- you're in some seriously elite company that have won at Darlington."
Do you think you have an edge at superspeedway racing because you are a quick learner? "I think so -- you hate to sit here and praise on yourself and everything, but I remember the first time it happened was when I got to the back of (Kevin) Harvick during practice and the next thing you know we ran a lap 12 miles an hour faster than the field and we were like, 'Okay, what did we just do there and how can we do it again?' Next thing you know, everyone starts doing it and that's why the sport constantly evolves. People think things are the exact same and they'll be the exact same as they were last year and what they were at Daytona and they're not. Everything changes within our sport so much and our drivers get so smart that they rarely make the same mistake twice. When they see someone catch an edge like that, everyone picks up right away so my job is to find the next edge. We're all constantly trying to do that all the time at every race track and that's why you see some people that just perform at certain tracks better because they found that edge at that particular track -- whatever it may be. There's just a few tracks where I feel like I have that edge. Superspeedway racing -- not sure I'm any better, worse or average than anyone else. At one time I did feel like I had that edge."