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

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing

How different will your team look this year? “I think our team is going to look totally different even though there’s just a few changes here and there. It’s going to be a total different race team I feel like. I’ve got two different people speaking in my ear and you’ve got a lot of energy within the shop. I know you hear that a lot, but we’ve really gone through some big changes with our team and it’s obviously got a lot of people excited.”

How good of a hire was it for your race team to get Darian Grubb? “It was big for us because he (Darian Grubb, crew chief) had so many good options and he had an offer from every race team in the garage area. For him to pick me as his driver and continuing to want to be a crew chief, that’s a big deal. So, at least it gives you the faith that the guy has got a lot of faith in your talents and that you can bring him another championship.”

How much different will it be for you to have a new crew chief? “I think there’s a lot of things that are going to be different. I’ve got to be a little bit more aware of what’s going on with my feedback. I think at times I kind of took for granted that Mike (Ford) just always knew what I needed at certain times even though I might not say it. With him (Darian Grubb, crew chief) I’ve got to make sure I continue to voice those things and tell him the specifics because he’s not worked with me before. Working with other drivers, he’s got different ideas and stuff that he can bring up to me. I think it’s going to be key for me the first six months to really communicate a lot with him.”

How much information can you use from Darian Grubb? “You’ve got to listen to a guy that’s won five of 10 Chase races in one year. He’s (Darian Grubb, crew chief) obviously got that experience. He’s got a lot of Hendrick (Motorsports) information that’s coming over to (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). That part of it is always good. New blood sometimes is just what you need to kind of get your team fired up.”

What does it say about Darian Grubb to know he won five of 10 Chase races when he knew he was being let go? “It tells me in those situations that the guy is mentally tough. When he knows his job is on the line and might not know what he’s doing next year, he’s still got the focus to bring what he brought to the race track. For me, I think he’s one of the most well-respected guys within our garage and that’s going to be a key asset to have.”

How long did it take you to get reenergized after last season? “I just had to get away from Charlotte for a little while. That’s all it took. Get away from racing and you know when you have such a bad year like we had last year, you’re waiting for the season to be over with. You always kind of get that second breath of life where you’re like, ‘Okay, the Chase is starting so it’s a fresh start.’ And, then when we come out of the gates and had the issues that we had in the very first race, it’s like that year is just not meant to be for us. It doesn’t take long before you’re starting to count down how many weeks are left in the season to just get it over with. Let’s go through the motions, get to the track, do our job and get out of there. And, obviously it’s going to be hard to win races with that attitude. Now, we’ve got a lot of reasons to be optimistic.”

What have you done during the off-season to get your mind away from the race track? “I’ve been racing since I was eight years old -- 23 straight years of living and breathing this sport every single day and every single week. Our schedule is not driver friendly with all of the obligations that we have on and off the race track, we’re doing so much during the week. We just don’t have that much time at home. For me, I had to get away from Charlotte, get away from the same people that I see all of the time, just to kind of relax and do my own grocery shopping, do my own laundry, cook my own food and just feel like I was on an island by myself. So, I feel like that has all been really good for me personally and it’s just gotten me super energized for a new season because I really do feel like I’ve had a break now.”

Why are you so confident going into this season? “I think we’re going to be going to the race track with completely different race cars. I can’t get a heck of a lot in depth with it, but just some of the things that we’re building in our race cars and things like that are just, gosh, things that I’ve wanted for a long time but it’s been hard to get past the departments here and there. We feel like we’re heading in a good direction, there’s no doubt about it. I feel like Toyota is getting stronger than what they were last year, all three teams are on the same engine program, we’ve got an alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing – there's a lot of things that are stronger this time around. And, on top of that my confidence is way higher right now than it was to start 2011.”

Can you use the adversity that you’ve faced during your career will help you to the next level? “I think the adversity that I’ve had in my career and the ups and the downs is going to make it sweeter when I finally do win that championship.”

Do you need to improve on speed in your race cars for the 2012 season? “It’s just things weren’t as easy as what they were in 2010. In 2011, for us, I was sweating like a dog in practice to be 20th fastest. It’s just having to work too hard to get the speed out of the car and that tells us that we’ve got to improve on a couple of different areas. I think we’ve shifted our focus this year to those areas and I think that there’s no doubt that when we get to the race track that we’re going to be much more competitive.”

Do you think having Darian Grubb as a crew chief is what you need to win a championship? “I just think that he (Darian Grubb, crew chief) brings so much good information over to our race team. Just the way that he was doing things over at Stewart-Haas and Hendrick and the way we were doing things at Gibbs, there’s a lot of good things that both teams were doing that we’re going to mesh together and make for hopefully a team that performs. Really, for me, it’s just hearing the different voice of reason. That gets you fired up sometimes and obviously when you know a guy has been as successful as him, it’s hard not to have confidence when you’re behind the wheel. All of this stuff has worked out it seems like perfectly for my career. There’s a lot of things that’s been put into place for me to be successful and I feel like this year is my best opportunity to do that.”

Will adding fuel injection to the race cars level all of the teams out? “No, I don’t think that will change much. I think that what’s driving the back tires is still that engine, it’s not the fuel injection. Us having Toyota on our side as far as that’s concerned on all three teams this year will be a big benefit because we’ve obviously got a lot of technology that they’re going to bring from their street program to our race program -- whether it be fuel mapping or things like that to try to help us with fuel mileage. Look how many races have been fuel mileage races here lately. It’s just you’ve got to have every aspect of your race team as good as possible.”

Do you think NASCAR’s current points system is the right formula? “I do and I think that the emphasis on winning is more than it’s ever been. That’s the mentality that you have to have. If you’re going to have to wreck a few race cars in the process to do it, then so be it because if you’re winning, you’re going to be in the Chase and that gets you a shot at the championship. I’m probably going to take a little bit more risk here and there to try and get those wins because we see how valuable it was last year.”

What did you do when you heard Darian Grubb was available? “When we heard about Darian (Grubb, crew chief) becoming available of course we were one of many teams that were after him pretty heavy. We knew he was going to have a tough decision. He’d had a relationship with Hendrick (Motorsports) for many, many years and when he got offered that position we thought we could possibly lose him to that because we know he is a loyal guy. But, it’s through sitting there and talking to him and I asked him about his motivation to win another championship. He says he feels like he wanted to crew chief until he was 40 years old and his son got to a certain age. His job now, he says, is to win another championship and show everyone that he can win with multiple drivers.”

How much does it increase your confidence to have Darian Grubb as your crew chief? “A lot. Everyone knows that the driver and crew chief relationship is very, very important. It’s as important as anything as far as being successful so we know it’s going to work. It’s going to take some time for him (Darian Grubb, crew chief) to understand what I need in my car and for me to tell him what he needs to hear. That part is going to be a little bit of a transition, but I think right now we have enough motivation and confidence that should carry us until that point happens.”

Will you use last year as motivation for this season? “I can’t even remember more than about five races last year in the sense of that we were really competitive, had a shot to win and those are the races that get me motivated. The rest of them, I feel like I was just there. I was one of those cars in the middle of the pack and that’s not me. I’m too competitive for that, I won’t stand for it and I’m not going to have the rest of my career go that way. We’re going to go back to the front where we belong.”

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Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

KYLE BUSCH, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing

Do you see any situations where you may start competing in the NCWTS again in the future? “To me, I think we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Truthfully, I don’t have to run Truck races. My fans love it and I love racing Truck races for them, but, like I said, I would love to see Kyle Busch Motorsports be able to sustain itself on its own and not have to have me in the seat every single week in a Truck race or Nationwide Series race.”

Does this make your 200 wins goal more difficult and eliminate something you find fun? “We’ll see. There’s no telling. Certainly, I wish that we could win eight races a year in Cup and eight races a year in Nationwide and right there you’re at 16 wins a year, so that’s not that bad. Granted, you run Truck races you can probably win five or six, so that puts you at 21 or 22 races a year. The focal point now is -- and has been -- although I want the 200 wins someday, the focal point needs to be on the Cup deal and trying to win a championship there, of course, and put my primary focus into that.”

Is the goal of cutting the NCWTS races to be stronger in the Chase? “Certainly, it all relates to one another. It’s all circumstantial upon something else. I think running less races is also a conditioning tool. I’ve been working really hard in the off-season in doing some things and running less races will also help that, but just being more focused and just trying to operate more on a level field with Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and how much he works and how hard he works and I’ve got to do the same.”

Do you think cutting back on your Nationwide and Truck schedule will be beneficial? “It’s certainly a possibility, but you know in 2008 and 2009 I ran the most races that I’ve ever run in a season and didn’t have any issues. Things went pretty well those couple of years. I think it’s been most frustrating for me because I’m getting more and more into my Cup Series career and I have yet to win a championship. For me, you get down to the end of the season and the first 26 races go well and then you start the Chase and you kind of fumble a little bit and you’re chasing a ball sometimes. We still had a shot -- we were running fourth or fifth in points at Talladega and then got crashed out there. Then we’re fifth in points or something like that in Martinsville and we get crashed out there. Your whole season’s shot. It’s not like one week’s gone -- like you didn’t win that race or something. You’ve got to wait all the way until next February to start a whole new year in order to get down to November. Think about it -- when you throw a whole year of your life away, it’s like, ‘Damn, this sucks.”

Is it a balance to determine how to not lose your drive and handle frustration better? “It certainly is and I’ve had a lot of fans, whether it’s been in meeting them in person or seeing them on Twitter or whatever -- they all tell you, ‘Don’t change anything -- we love the way you are and keep that attitude.’ At the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like me not changing anything is helping anything. I have to change something, I just have to figure out what that is and make it work for me.”

How is your relationship with Joe Gibbs? “He (Joe Gibbs, team owner) is a phenomenal character and has a lot of personality to him because he’s probably seen so much over the years. For me, him and I have a great dialogue -- we talk quite a bit. It’s been really good. He believes in me. I wouldn’t be here if the guy didn’t believe in me. He knows what kind of person I am and it’s not that I have to convince the people that are closest around me what kind of person I am -- I have to convince those that are furthest from me that don’t ever get to see me.”

Do your results in last year’s Chase give you more motivation for 2012? “I don’t need any extra motivation, trust me. I’ve been here long enough. I’ve been here plenty of times and I’ve run plenty of laps where I’m not just getting tired of not winning a championship, I think people are.”

Are you ready to get back to racing in February? “You get an off-season and you’re not racing so you kind of miss the bug a little bit. You spend some time relaxing and hanging out and just letting the New Year come to you. For me, I’ve been ready. I think I’m pretty well versed in what we need to have happen this year and what we’d like to have happen and what we’d like to see.”

Do you race all 36 races the same or separate from the first 26 to the Chase? “We’d like to have the whole 36-race season go according to plan. You don’t run the first 26 and then the final 10. We like to run the whole 36 the same way. You go out there and you try to win every single week. If you can’t win, then you go to the best of your opportunity and the best of your ability and what’s given to you on that day. Whether it’s a third, a second, a fifth or whatever. You do have to keep conscious of not putting yourself in bad positions or wrecking out and finishing back in the 20s or 30s.”

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Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

JOEY LOGANO, No. 20 Home Depot Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing

Are you excited to have Jason Ratcliff as your new NSCS crew chief? “Me and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief), we’ve worked together for two races over in the Nationwide side and I felt like we connected really quick. I felt like the two of us, the communication at the race track, at the shop -- it really accelerated at a really quick rate. So, I was excited about that. When the decision came up, I think Jason was kind of a shoe-in for that deal. I think he’s the perfect match for me. I think even in practice, we come in, sit down and talk to each other and try to make the best decision with the race car we possibly can. I feel like we’ve done a really good job for those first two races. I always felt like, ‘Man, I need to work with him more.’ I think we can do good things with it. I think he’s the right man for our Home Depot/Dollar General Toyota and we’ll go out there and do the best we can this year.”

What do you think about Greg Zipadelli leaving Joe Gibbs Racing? “Sometimes things just don’t match up perfectly. I love Zip (Greg Zipadelli) to death. I’m going up to New York this weekend to do his charity ride. The friendship is still there. Things sometimes just don’t match up perfectly and we probably will get along a lot better now that we’re not working with each other. I still like him. I think it’s a good call for him to go over there. He wants to be home with his kids more. His kids are growing up. I don’t have kids so I don’t know what that’s like, but I would assume you want to be with them a lot. I think that’s a really good call for him and I think it’s going to be really neat. I think it’s going to be the best for both of us in the long run. I think it’s something that the No. 20 team itself needed and I think Zip needed it, too.”

Do you feel more pressure this season? “No, not right now. I’m very relaxed. I feel like my head is in the right spot. I feel like I’m very confident in myself, I’m very confident in Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and my whole team and doing the right thing. I tell you, Jason – I’ve talked to him a ton. Everyday we’re on the phone, I’m at the shop talking to him, doing something with him. I think that’s gone along really well. Then, Jason is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s there all the time. Between Dave (Rogers, No. 18 crew chief) and Jason, I’ve seen them on the Nationwide side before and those two will keep getting each other to work harder and harder and they’re going to do that over here on the Cup side along with Darian (Grubb, No. 11 crew chief) involved with that too, it’s going to be unreal. I’m pretty pumped up about it. I think there are some really good changes at Joe Gibbs Racing that I think are going to help all three teams.”

Is it important for you to make the Chase this year? “Yes, it’s a hard to set goals. You go to race track to win every one of them, so I think everyone’s goal is to win a championship. I think you have to shoot for the moon. That’s the only way you are going to do it. If you just shoot for making the Chase, that’s all you’re going to do. You’re not going to do anything better than that. I think you have to shoot for the moon and keep shooting for that and see what comes out of it.”

Have you experienced any changes since Darian Grubb joined Joe Gibbs Racing? “Yeah, I think it’s refreshing. There’s new faces and there’s new changes. I think bringing Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) in and Darian (Grubb, No. 11 crew chief), both of them are bringing a lot of new energy and a lot of new life. I think it’s something that was needed to be done. I think Joe (Gibbs, team owner) and J.D. (Gibbs, team president) made some really good calls. I know they’re tough decisions. I couldn’t imagine being put in that spot. I think it’s the right thing for our race teams and we’ll make it happen.”

What lessons have you learned in your racing career? “When you’re little and your mother is like, ‘You just wait, I’m stupid right now but you’ll get older and discover how smart I was.’ Yeah, that was the same thing, but in racing for me. Obviously you want to be confident, you need to think that you know a lot and think that you’re the best race car driver out there. But, at the same time you have to be humble and go ask questions, talk to the guys -- do whatever you can to make yourself a better race car driver. I’ve learned that stuff very quickly. It’s something that is a very valuable experience. I’m going to take that in the rest of my life, whether that’s in racing or not.”

Is this going to be a make it or break it year for you? “I don’t make anything of it. It’s no difference to me. You should treat every year like it’s a make it or break it year. So, what’s the difference? That’s how I look at it. I should go out there and try to win every race, whether it’s contract year or not. There’s no difference there for me.”

Was last season a disappointing year for you? “Obviously last year was a disappointment I think for all three teams. I can speak for myself -- that was terrible last year. We did everything as a team completely wrong in a lot cases, whether it’s driver mistakes, team mistakes -- whatever it was, we weren’t on it. With a year like that, talk about being humble, that will humble you in a hurry. That’s when you have to dig down deep. You don’t want to do that again. It was seriously no fun at all to do something like that. That motivates you a ton to go out there and do a lot better. I know I have the guys behind me now. I’m very confident going into this season, probably more confident than I’ve ever been going into a season. Obviously with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief), signing on a new sponsor like Dollar General, that brings some new life into the team, too. We’re excited about that.”

What can you do to make yourself better? “You can’t just pin point one thing. There’s a lot of different things. I can say now, I feel like I’m a lot more involved with what’s going on with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) -- I feel like we’re working on the same level now. We’re bouncing ideas off of each other a lot more. The communication is huge. If you wanted to point out one thing, it would be communication and I feel that’s going to come naturally with me and Jason.”

Does getting a new sponsor this season put pressure on you? “It is pressure bringing them in, but it’s confidence when you get them. Think about how hard it is to get a great company like Dollar General in our sport. It’s very hard to do, there are a lot of other teams out there trying to get them. A lot of other teams with great drivers trying to get them. For us to be able to reel them in and get them, that puts a lot of confidence in our team and myself for sure.”

How have you been able to be positive with what your team experienced last year? “Positive thinking is very important no matter what is going on. That’s something I’ve learned more this last year than I’ve ever thought of. I went to a sports psychologist, you talk to those people and you find a new way of going to a race track and a new whole way of thinking about a lot of things. That’s very, very important. I was able to see the gains you can make in that stuff. That’s the stuff when you’re down, you look at anything. I think that was some really good things to look at. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) is good in that department.”