Hamlin: “The short tracks in general, the driver can make a difference if his car isn’t 100 percent."
How does it feel to come back to your home track at Richmond International Raceway? “I’m looking forward to it. We’ve spent some time doing some short track testing during the off weekend to try to get better. I feel like over these last couple years -- really since these Generation 6 cars, we as an organization have struggled. We’ve really lost our edge, I guess you could say on these short tracks. We’re trying to get some of that good feel in the car back. I think we took some steps forward today in practice. Still not where we need to be by any means, but definitely should perform better than we did at Martinsville.”
What is the promotion your sponsor has with Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway for next month’s race? “We’re excited about it. I believe until May 4, you can go to FedExRacing.com/FedEx400 to get your name on our car for an $11 donation.
How do you measure where you are at this point in the season? “Well, we’re not where we need to be, for sure. I touched on it a little bit. Our cars are a little bit off right now. There’s a lot of little pieces and parts of our car that is a little off just a little bit, which really gets magnified -- especially when a couple teams have hit on something that really has given them an advantage at this point because they’ve found a setup that is really working well. We’re kind of getting split by that at this time, but like I said -- we're getting better. We’re learning, every time we get to the race track we’re learning something new. We haven’t used any of our tests yet, which we’ll use I’m sure this summer to try to get better for the summer months because obviously we can save all the tests we want for the Chase, but if you’re not in it, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve got to get our cars running a little bit better than what they are right now.”
Do you feel this is the right time to race at Richmond given the progress your team has made on short tracks this season? "Yeah, I hope so. We’ve really came off two solid performances I feel like in the last few weeks between Texas and Darlington. We ran pretty solid -- Martinsville was the one chink in the armor for us where it caught us off guard and where our short track package was. But yeah, after the testing we did during the off week, I feel like it’s a good time for us to come here. We went from a very subpar car the first practice to, in just one hour later, we feel like is somewhere around a top-five car. We’re making gains and heading in the right direction. Just as a driver, I’m so impatient -- you want things. I feel like I want to take advantage of things that are at these race tracks because these are the race tracks that we perform so well at in the past, but you want to have the best of the best.”
How can a driver learn the art of short track racing, especially at a track like Richmond? “The short tracks in general, the driver can make a difference if his car isn’t 100 percent. Anywhere where you have to use a lot of brake and there is a lot of throttle control, the driver obviously is a bigger factor. That’s some of the struggles we’ve seen on the mile-and-a-half’s and our cars aren’t running so fast, we’re all just running around there wide open all the time, the driver is not as important, it’s about how fast your race car is -- the aero, the engine – things like that.
When you come to these tracks, you know you’re going to be working the wheel a lot, working the gas and the brake a lot, you’ve got to be on your game as a driver. When you have a technique that works at certain particular race tracks, you feel like this is the tracks you need to perform well at. Of course Richmond is a track that has a little bit of everything -- you need a little bit of motor, you need your car to handle well, and it’s just aero is a little bit of factor as well. It’s one of those tracks where you have to have everything working just right -- mechanical, aero, engines. It’s one of the very few tracks where all three of those are as equally as important.”
How important would it be to get a win this weekend in Richmond to solidify your chances in the Chase? “It would be super important for us in particular because after missing a race and making quite a few mistakes myself over the last few weeks, there’s 50 or 60 points are off the table that we should have. It’s a fine balance that I wish we could have a win. We’re so far off with our cars right now, I wish we could try some dramatically different setups and things, but we still have to keep the points thing in mind if for some reason we don’t get a win -- we need to be one of those guys that are high enough in points to get a berth that way. It really plays into the advantage of those drivers that do have wins to really start to work on different areas for these next few months before the Chase to improve their cars. It’s a tough spot for us, because like I said, we would like to get that win, but we also have to make sure we put a setup in the car that is going to get us a good run as well.”
Do you think qualifying at Talladega will be crazy and is starting position important at the superspeedways? “It really doesn’t. I think it’s going to be more of an exhibition than anything. If you’re 25th, trust me, you’re not going to sleep uneasy the night before the race because you’re starting 25th. That can change within lap one. I think it’s more going to be a show for the fans and things like that. I’m sure the crew chiefs will pull the reigns back on the drivers a little bit in making crazy moves and things like that, but I think you’ll see a lot of pack drafting with teammates and manufacturers and things like that. I don’t know if it will be as crazy as people think. A lot of it is also because Talladega is so wide that you can run six wide. It’s not like we’re doing superspeedway racing at Darlington where there’s no escaping. You can make moves to get out of the way. Daytona practice was fun when we did that for the Unlimited and I think it will be fun for the drivers to try to time your runs and things like that. As far as importance for the race, there’s really none.”
How was your Short Track Showdown at South Boston Speedway? “We won’t know for a few weeks (what was raised), until everything comes in. It was a huge success. It was the biggest event by far we’ve had as far as attendance and competitor participation – everything was just really, really good. They did a really good job of hosting and promoting it. There was no seat available and there was four deep all the way around the race track with people (standing). We estimate probably around eight or nine thousand people at South Boston (Speedway), which it doesn’t hold that many. It was a huge event as far as that’s concerned. You had everything, you had a fist fight, you had cars landing on top of each other and a pass within five to go. To me, it was a home run. Unfortunately I ran horribly. That’s the only down side.”
What do you like to do when you visit your hometown? “There’s a pretty awesome TGI Fridays in Chesterfield we all hang out at, or used to hang out at. That’s kind of the watering hole for us Chesterfieldians.”
Can you take chances in Saturday night’s race to try to win? “If it’s for a win, it’s a big chance. We haven’t – a couple weeks ago at Texas we definitely had a car that could win, Darlington we were five-ish, but I really haven’t been in that position at any of these race tracks so far where I could take a chance for a race win. We were going to have a great shot at Texas, but I slid through my pit box on that last restart and it put me in the back and was going to allow me to start on the front row on that green-white-checkered. Same with Darlington, I sped on pit road and we were going to be on the front row again on a green-white-checkered. Two big missed opportunities by myself making mistakes there, but if I had that chance again and I had a chance to move to get a win and for sure I would be very, very aggressive, especially on this type of race track where I feel like I have pretty good car control.”
How do you select the charities you’ve worked with? “The two major ones that we have partnerships with through FedEx -- March of Dimes and Autism Speaks -- those are major organizations that affect the most people. Autism is I think one in 80 now children have Autism. That number keeps getting lower and lower, so the cost of a child that has Autism is very expensive for the families. We’re trying to touch what affects the most people. March of Dimes, obviously kids are our future and having a healthy premature baby is very important and I know from having a healthy (child) myself, you really start to appreciate that.
The personal one is cystic fibrosis from my cousin has it which has affected our family. He’s kind of going through a tough time right now with it and it’s just a fight. It’s tough for any family that has Cystic Fibrosis and I’ve met a lot of kids that have it and they live at the hospital a lot. It’s tough to be in that situation. I’m very fortunate to be partnered with the people I’m partnered with because FedEx really allows me the liberty to be out there and help promote these great organizations. It makes me look really good when I’m able to go out there and have a sponsor that supports that.”
When will you start to feel pressure to make the Chase and race for a championship? “I think it will probably be weeks from now. Honestly I think it will probably be mid to late June is when you’ll start to see times start to really move fast on you and look at the races that are coming up and count down when you have to really -- what can you do, when can you throw a ‘Hail Mary’ to try to do something to try to get a win. At this point, where we’re at with our organization, I think we’re in a very slow process to get our cars better and we still have great race cars and great pit crew and the things that kind of keep us at least in contention every single week is how solid the organization is.
We definitely know that we are a little bit behind and it’s going to take a little time. We’re going to try to be patient with that. The changes and our speed is not going to change overnight, but it will change in the next month or two. I’m looking forward to that. Really it’s tough times when you know you’re down here and there in these little places that you can make your car – make yourself better. When you have those bumps in performance and you can make the parts and pieces in your car then you really start to perform well. I’m not panicked yet because I know good things are coming down the line.
How do you deal with challenges you have experienced on pit road? “I think that’s accurate. What you said is, I feel like I have to get everything I can on pit road to get that track position because on the race track we’re not that strong. A lot of it is, I’m coming in -- these last two weeks we’re coming in to pit road getting ready to face a green-white-checkered, crew chief makes a call that I know is going to put me in the front row based off the strategy we’re going to play and I’m sitting there trying to get every little mark on my tach(ometer) I can on pit road to ensure that I’m going to get myself a chance to go for a win. I know if I start second row my chances are done, it’s not going to happen. I’ve made tons of mistakes there and I’ve left a lot on the table points-wise by doing that, but you just make adjustments.
You can’t go out there and practice it, but you make adjustments. These engineers and crew chiefs and everyone, they know so precise what you’re running on pit road speed by the tach and the lights on the tach now, that you just make a slight adjustment next time you go there to understand you can’t push it that one extra. To get closer and closer to pit road speed every week, really it used to be if the speed limit was 35, guys would be running 33. Now we push it all the way up to 39.5 because the technology is so much better, we get pit road reports every single week of I can get one more mile an hour in this section next time we go there, so right that down and tell me to be more aggressive there. We continue to push, push, push because it’s so hard to make those passes on the race track.”