DENNY HAMLIN Friday Night Lights -- Desert Style HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (April 8, 2008) -- It's a long way from Richmond to Phoenix, from the lush, tree-laden avenues of Virginia's capital city to the scenic, desert landscape with cactus...
Friday Night Lights -- Desert Style
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (April 8, 2008) -- It's a long way from Richmond to Phoenix, from the lush, tree-laden avenues of Virginia's capital city to the scenic, desert landscape with cactus populating the hillsides overlooking Phoenix International Raceway (PIR).
But Denny Hamlin, a Chesterfield, Va., native and driver of the No. 20 Z-Line Designs Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), has every reason to feel very much at home during Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series Bashas' Supermarkets 200 at PIR. The regular driver of JGR's No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hopes to drive Z-Line Designs back to victory lane for the second time in four Nationwide Series starts this season. And even though the setting is quite different from his home state of Virginia, the chance to race under the Friday-night lights on the tricky PIR mile oval takes him back to his early days running Late Models in and around his mid-Atlantic stomping grounds.
Hamlin has 94 Nationwide Series starts over the past three seasons with JGR's No. 20 team. He scored Z-Line's first NASCAR milestone less than a year ago when -- in only the sponsor's fourth Nationwide Series race -- he qualified the No. 20 car on the pole and led 80 laps of a Friday-night race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway before an accident took him out of contention. Even though his and Z-Line's shot at a milestone victory came to a premature end that night, it was a sign of good things to come for the San Ramon, Calif.-based designer and import manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture that has since become a familiar leader on NASCAR ovals, augmenting the company's presence as a leader in the furniture industry.
JGR teammate Tony Stewart scored Z-Line Designs' greatest NASCAR milestone to date this past February, when he qualified on the front row and ran away with an easy Nationwide Series victory just across the desert at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. In Z-Line's very next race, on the high-banked half-mile oval at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in March, Hamlin waged a valiant effort to make it back-to-back victories. He qualified the No. 20 on the front row once again and led the first 37 laps of the race before a cut right-front tire ended his bid on lap 70 of the 171 lap rain-shortened event.
The very next weekend, at Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway, Z-Line Designs tapped on the third member of the JGR Sprint Cup driving trio -- Kyle Busch -- to take the reins. Busch certainly didn't disappoint. He put the Z-Line car on the pole for the first time since Hamlin's top qualifying effort at Richmond in May 2007, and he dominated the first half of the race, leading 125 laps before an off-course excursion ended his bid for Z-Line's second victory in three outings.
Back in his racing element for Friday night's race at Phoenix -- under the lights on a flat, mile oval -- Hamlin feels all the ingredients are in place to not only qualify the Z-Line Designs Toyota up front, as it has all season long, but to keep it there until the checkered flag waves once again.
Denny Hamlin -- Driver, No. 20 Z-Line Designs NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry at Phoenix International Raceway
You grew up racing Late Models on the Saturday-night short tracks in Virginia. Does running on a Friday night at a flat track like Phoenix bring you back to your roots?
"Phoenix reminds me more of racing when I was younger, for sure. I spent plenty of time early in my career running flat tracks in Late Models and PIR feels like that to me. Add the fact that it's Friday night under the lights and it brings back some great memories from the Late Model days, when I started my career. Phoenix is one of my favorite places to race and a big reason for that is that it reminds me of the weekend short track racing back home in Virginia."
While racing on a Friday night in Phoenix might put you in a comfort zone, would you call its layout particularly challenging?
"The track can be really tricky. It's flat and requires you to be really good with your set-up if you are going to be quick through the corners. I spent a lot of time running on flat tracks, not the mile-and-a-half banked tracks that we run at often. That experience helps me because it feels familiar to me and I'm comfortable there because of it. Both ends of the race track at Phoenix are completely different. On top of that, the dogleg on the backstretch can trip you up, as well. Being off there just a little bit can be the difference between running well and really struggling. Track position is also going to be very important, so I'm sure the guys will be ready to give us some great stops on Friday night. We've had a couple of good finishes there in the 20 car with Dave Rogers (crew chief), but we are bringing a brand new race car and I'm hoping it might change our fortunes at bit."
Your first race of the season with the No. 20 started off well, but a cut tire forced you to make an unscheduled pit stop and put you out of contention. You have only a small handful of opportunities with the No. 20 Z-Line Designs team this year. Do you feel any pressure to win since your opportunities are limited in the Nationwide Series?
"I want to win every time I get behind the wheel. Tony (Stewart) and Kyle (Busch) are the same way and have proved that with how hard they've driven in the races they've had in the 20 car. Bristol was disappointing because we had a really good race car, but we really never got a shot to be there at the end. The Nationwide Series races might mean less pressure, but I want to win in anything I get in. I've worked with Dave (Rogers) for so long that he knows what I need in the race car and he knows what to expect with how I'm telling him the car is handling. I think that even though we are taking breaks from working with each other in the Nationwide Series cars this year, it's easy for us to pick up where we left off because of all the experience we've had working together over the past three years."