An interview with Denny Hamlin
ASHLEY JONES: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to today's NASCAR Cam video teleconference in advance of Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. Our guest today is Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Denny joins us from the NASCAR media group studio at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
Denny, who is 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings has finished in the top 10 in two of the last three races at Dover International Speedway, which is the site of Sunday's AAA 400.
I think that the respect and gentleman factor that we have out on the racetrack has kind of gone out the window...
Q. Since you are sitting 12th in points, are you and Mike Ford going to take more chances in these last eight races?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, definitely, I believe so. You know, when you have the pressure of winning a championship, a lot goes into that. You're constantly thinking about not making mistakes, and where do you want to finish this particular race, and last year we had -- we executed it to where we would run 5th, we wanted to run 6th, 7th in certain races. In the position I'm in at this point, we're going out there and we're trying to win, and that's what we need to do to get back on track for 2012 is to win a few races before the season is over, and I feel like a no-points-pressure situation is just what we need.
Q. A couple weeks after you won in Chicago, Tony Stewart said there isn't a whole lot of respect out there right now, and Newman kind of said the same thing after the race last week. I assume that was from him trying to come back up through the field. I was curious how have you found the racing lately, and have you seen any sort of change?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I would agree. I mean, I think that the respect and gentleman factor that we have out on the racetrack has kind of gone out the window, and a lot of it is we know with these fuel mileage races that we're having, these tires that are not falling off, that you can't be patient anymore like you used to. You've got to go as hard as you can each and every lap, especially two, three laps after a restart because you know that you're not going to do much passing after that.
You know, for us I think that that's why everyone's intensity level has been ramped up. I think some people are eliminated as far as points are concerned from the Chase, so their intensity is being ramped up, and so it's kind of a conglomerate of all those different things that's making the racing like it is on the restarts.
Q. Are guys now apologizing more afterward in the motor home lot or trying to talk through it, or is it just kind of something that's not talked about and you just kind of know that that's the way the deal is now?
DENNY HAMLIN: There's very few apologies that come in this garage anymore. If you get one, the guy must have really made a huge mistake. But I think the guys -- it used to be guys would get into it and then you'd get a text message from them or a voice mail from them the following day saying, Sorry about that, I didn't mean to do that. Now guys just think it's the way it is, and so now we see it's becoming more common, and guys are just accepting it.
Q. I guess to put it in simplest terms, can you still win the championship where you are right now, and if so, what's going to have to happen? Are some other teams going to have to have a couple of bad breaks or could you guys go out there and put together eight good races and work your way back up?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, it's possible, but we haven't done that yet this season, so it would be a first for us. The run we had going into the Chase where we had three consecutive top 10s, that was the best we had run three consecutive weeks throughout our entire season. So for us to ask to do it eight weeks in a row and then move those top 10s to top 5s would be very, very tough to do. Is it possible, yes; is it likely, no. So that's why we're going out each week just trying to have fun and worrying about winning a race before the season is over with.
Q. It used to be it was real easy to get the ship pointed in the wrong direction but real hard to get it back pointed in the right direction. I guess Tony was counting himself out of the Chase and has had four good straight runs and is the points leader; it seems like they almost turned it around instantly. Is it possible to turn it around that quick now?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think any small changes you make with your race team that improves it is magnified because the cars are so even now, if you gain a half of a tenth a lap better when you make your race cars, that's 20 positions it seems like each and every week. I think like Tony's team found something four or five weeks ago, it's helped them at all these different racetracks, and we see the results because of it.
But you know, they're winning at different racetracks, so you can't really pinpoint it to one thing. I think they're just riding that momentum wave right now.
Q. This is the fifth consecutive season where the driver that finished second in the final standings the previous year has struggled in the Chase. When you consider that the runner-up in the Chase should probably come back the following season and be one of the favorites to win it all, why do you think this pattern has developed over the last few years?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's tough for me to say because I think everyone's reason for not running as competitive the following year is different. But you know, for us we've just honestly been stricken by a lot of bad luck. We've ran out of fuel, we've gotten in wrecks, we've cut tires, things like that. We've blown engines, we've had mechanical parts that have failed, had so many different things that's bitten us this year. I can't pinpoint one reason why those things have happened.
So I don't know why I think it's -- I personally think it's more coincidence than anything, but it's just we're just kind of falling into that trend at this point, but we're trying to turn that around and trying to figure out a way to get back to the top 5 in the points, and if we can do that, we're going to be bucking the trend.
Q. You obviously had a tough break at New Hampshire running out of fuel, a decision that comes in part from the guy on top of the pit box. I was just wondering how you would characterize your relationship with Mike Ford right now and how it's handled this year of ups and downs, and also, what's the one thing you guys really need to improve on in the last eight races, the communication between each other, to be even more competitive and be up there contending for wins?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, we all know this is a performance business, and obviously you've got to be competitive and contend for race wins so everyone feels good about their job. I feel like Mike is the guy for me. I feel like he's done a great job. He won me eight races last year. Some of the things that we've had go wrong this year are crew chief related, some of them are not. Most of them are not. Some of them are driver related. It weighs on all of our shoulders equally, and I feel like he's kind of received a bit of a bad rap because of that.
But I feel like he's the reason -- kind of the backbone of this race team, and obviously if you made a change, it would take a long time to get back to where I feel like we're capable of running at this point right now.
I think at times during the season we've gotten off track between the two of us, and I feel like these last four or five weeks the communication has been better. I feel like we were heading in the right direction, we've just had some things go wrong these first couple Chase races that makes it look worse than it really is.
Q. Experience counts in many ways. How does your past Chase history help your mindset now?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think that last year I was under quite a bit of pressure. With expectations comes a lot of pressure, and being a championship favorite obviously weighs very, very heavy on your shoulders to live up to those expectations. This year we came into the Chase as an underdog. We're still obviously very much an underdog. My job to do these next eight races is to go have fun and try to win races. I want to end on a good note and be charging towards the front of the championship point battle by the end of the year.
Whether we're going to get there or not, I don't know. Maybe there's just not enough races for us. But if there's not, at least we want to be heading in the right direction into 2012.
Q. Are there wrong ways to approach the Chase do you think?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I mean, there's right and wrong ways to do it. I think that everyone has a different approach to how they run the Chase. I think that last year I had more of a conservative approach of trying a specific position I wanted to finish at each and every race and whether we could get to that goal or not.
But it works different for everyone, and that particular strategy worked great for me last year up until the second-to-last race, and obviously we ran out of fuel. And things change, so you've got to alter your strategy depending on where you're at in the points.
Q. It seems like dead weight is -- losing dead weight is a way to improve on performance in the Chase. Do you have any dead weight (laughing)?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. It's tough to say. I mean, I wish there was an anchor I could throw out and get rid of it, but it seems like we've just got something attached to it each and every week that hampers us from getting the finishes that we want.
So for me, I wish I could pinpoint that one thing that we need to improve on, but obviously Tony and those guys have figured it out.
Q. On a serious note, have you had in your career, have you ever had a year like this where the gremlins just keep popping out at you, bad luck here and there and that kind of thing?
Until we have one specific thing that we need to work on and can identify as a problem, I can't see changing much.
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, honestly I've never had a year like this year, not even on the local short track level. I've always won races, always competed for a championship just about every year that I've been in one division or another, so no, I've never gone through a year like this before. Honestly hopefully it's a character builder for myself and the race team to kind of get back to reality of how tough this business is, and we know that what we're capable of, and hopefully this is just a year where we kind of reset and go on to next year and get back to our form of 2010.
Q. I was wondering if you could elaborate on your relationship with Mike Ford a little bit, and has there been times this year when you've questioned the direction of the team and thought maybe a change was needed?
DENNY HAMLIN: You always have thoughts about what you need to do to improve, and like I said before, there's been weeks where I can put some of the responsibility on Mike, there's been some weeks that it ultimately goes on my shoulders, and there's some weeks where it's things back at the shop that need to be improved on.
Until we have one specific thing that we need to work on and can identify as a problem, I can't see changing much. But I feel like we have a good group of guys. I can win a championship with Mike; I really and truly do believe that. But we've just got to get our ship righted. It seems like our communication at some point in the year got stale. I felt like we've turned that around this last month or so, and we had three good finishes going into the Chase, and of course we had flat tires and a loose wheel the first Chase race. That's stuff that Mike can't help. He can't help those problems that we have. Loudon, New Hampshire, fuel mileage. It's 50/50. It's one of those things where maybe I used up too much gas, maybe it was too risky of a call. But either way, it weighs on us equally when we don't run well. So I'm not going to completely throw him under the bus.
ASHLEY JONES: Thank you, and I do appreciate everyone joining us today for talking with Denny Hamlin. Best of luck this weekend in Dover.