Joe Gibbs Racing driver prepares for race at Auto Club Speedway.
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Are you looking forward to this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway?
“I’m looking forward to coming to this track. This track has a lot of tire wear, which is typically good for us and it’s a track where we can move around. It’s one of the few race tracks where they haven’t repaved so it usually puts on some of the best races. It’s a great race track for that. We look forward to coming here and running extremely well. We had a pretty good first practice, so we’re starting off on the right foot.”
“I think they’re working a lot closer now. Obviously Toyota really works hard to get the MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) and Joe Gibbs (Racing) guys working closer together. Obviously they would like more cars on the race track to really in essence to contend for a manufacturer’s championship, but really don’t have enough cars out there to do it right now. It’s gotten better. Obviously there’s a lot of restructuring that gets done every single year. There’s continued ways that we can get better at our communication. The horsepower side of things and reliability, we go back and forth on what we really need at different times and we struggle for some sometimes and other times we’re okay. It’s a long progression. It’s hard to come in this sport and be on top of things. They’ve had their fair share of wins over these 10 years and a lot of poles, a lot of laps led. Obviously a championship has escaped them a few times, but still it’s a pretty solid organization. It was the best move for us in 2008 to change to Toyota being that we were going to be a bigger fish in a small pond versus when we were with Chevy there were so many teams and it’s tough to get everything that you want.”
What was your reaction that your hauler is parked near Joey Logano’s?
“I expected it -- we're close in points. Really for us, it really doesn’t matter too much. It really doesn’t change anything. I spoke the same amount of words to Joey (Logano) as my teammate Matt (Kenseth) and he’s on the other side of me. It really doesn’t matter. You’re so focused on what you have to do to get better. It really is just a year.”
How long did it take to get what happened here last year out of your head?
“Not really, to get it out of my head. It was a bad weekend for sure and obviously affected the rest of our season and beyond. It’s just you have to move on and you have to deal with the adversity and be stronger from it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
How are you mentally as you return to Auto Club Speedway after last year’s wreck?
“A lot of it is wanting to get better and we’re taking baby steps back to where we were in 2010 and ’12, really and a strong championship contender. Being a consistent top-five, top-10 car and it takes a lot of work to do that. Really worrying about retaliating and holding grudges and things like that takes away from the time you need to be preparing for the upcoming event. Especially when you’re on the track, it’s hard enough to pass in these cars, so you have to concentrate in these cars at all times about what you’re going to do to run the best lap you can and not, ‘Hey I need to get to this guy or that guy to retaliate.’ It’s just a different mindset now. It’s not like it used to be in the ’90s and ’80s and things like that when we saw these spats. It’s a different kind of racing.”
Have you considered giving NASCAR some feedback on safety improvements at tracks?
“I really don’t think we should have to. Common sense should come into play on some of the race tracks. We can hit inside walls at anywhere and we hit inside walls sometimes harder than we hit outside walls. For an outside organization to say you don’t need it at this place because of odds or statistics, you’re not going to hit here or it’s a less dangerous spot is ridiculous. Anywhere that we have a concrete wall should be covered by SAFER barrier. There’s a lot of race tracks where you look at the map from the sky and my particular team has highlighted where there is no SAFER barrier at a lot of mile-and-a-halfs. Eighty percent of the inside walls are not covered at all. Even though this is a small section that they have here at this track, it’s not just about this one. It’s about many, many other mile-and-a-halfs -- they have to improve on getting SAFER barriers where they should be. It could save someone one day. It should be at the highest priority.”
How are you feeling a year after your back injury and how important is this race for you this year?
“Physically I feel really good, actually. The best I’ve felt back-wise in a really long time. I mean years and years. I’m better than I was before the wreck, for sure. I had issues, degenerating disc issues that have plagued me for a long time and the wreck obviously made that a lot worse. I’ve found things that help me through that now and I hate to knock on wood and say cured me, but it’s really helped a lot. I’m past that part. Coming in here, I think the only time I thought about the wreck was the first corner going off in turn three the first lap of practice where you kind of think about what happened and things like that. But, literally you’re running such speeds here and you’re on edge so much that the next time I came around it was an afterthought and I haven’t thought of it since. It’s definitely a track where we come here and it’s looking at the schedule early -- this is a track where we really want to perform well at. I’ve taken this race and circled it as one where you really would like to get a win and obviously be competitive when it comes Sunday. It’s nice to instead of retaliating, to end in victory lane.”
Would you be a supporter of shortening races from 500 to 400 miles like they have at Auto Club Speedway?
“Sure, no problems with that. They’re all long. Everything is long, our season is long. It’s a very tough schedule. Besides that, these races -- sometimes it’s tough to keep your audience for four-and-a-half hours, which is what a 500 mile race around here would be. You’re going to find out after 400 or 500, really what’s the difference? You’ve had a lot of time to work on your race car to get it better. I think some of the 500 mile races we have are extremely long and obviously I’m open to shortening just about anything.”
Do you feel winning the California race would be redemption?
“I definitely said this was one of my top-three tracks that I’d like to win at. A lot of it is just – maybe next year it’s not going to be on the top-three, but this particular year it is because it’s one year later for us. There’s a little bit of added focus for sure. There’s more drive, there’s extra motivation. Everything you can think of could put you at a competitive edge, you’ve got this weekend when you come to a track that you really want to perform well at. You just spend extra time debriefing – whatever it takes to get that little bit of information you share that gives the crew chief the great idea – a brilliant idea that makes your car faster. Whatever it is, you do and go the extra mile on these types of race tracks. We’re going to do it and see where we stack up.”
What do you need to do to be able to pass on the California race track?
“The good news about this race track is obviously restarts are important in getting all your positions early, but it is a track later in runs where you can make up quite a bit of ground. You can -- there's not a speed difference between running all the way at the wall or at the line next to the grass in turns three and four. When you have a car that is working well, you can typically get away from your competition. The whole key that everyone talks about when it’s so hard to pass is the wake that these big spoilers put out, you cannot run near someone when you’re on a one lane race track, the back car just has no air and it makes it nearly impossible. Here at this race track where you can spread out, you’re really essentially running in clean air even when you’re the second car because you just go where they’re not. Typically with this wide of a race track, you can tell where the person is going to go before they enter the corners. It’s pretty easy to – it’s easier to make passes than at really any other mile-and-a-half track we go to.”