Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuesday Q & A with Championship Contender Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin won at Phoenix in 2012
THE MODERATOR: Today we're joined by Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

You head to Phoenix this weekend second in the Chase standings, in a points tie with Joey Logano. You also have one win and eight top 5 finishes at the one-mile track. What do you think your chances are of grabbing a second win and locking yourself into the championship?

DENNY HAMLIN: That's obviously our goal is to go to Phoenix and win. It has been a good track. It hasn't has been as great a racetrack for us since they repaved it.

It's been more of a track position-type race. But still pretty optimistic. After the middle of the race last week, I didn't think we'd be in the position we are right now. So we've got to capitalize on that and hopefully give ourselves a shot at Homestead.

Q. You were in this position in 2010. I know the format was different. But you went to Phoenix sort of in control of your own destiny, to a degree. What can you look back on and learn and apply to Phoenix and Homestead the next two weeks?

DENNY HAMLIN: You know, it's similar situations. We were racing less guys for sure. I think there was at that point of the year in 2010 it was myself, Jimmy and Kevin that had kind of broken ourselves away from the pack. Where now there's obviously more players in the game.

I don't feel like our performance is as high of a level now as it was then. So that's also more of an obstacle. But you still have the opportunity. And with this format last week it created an opportunity for us to put ourselves in a good position where, otherwise, we were probably going to have to win Phoenix when it came down to 40, 50 laps to go. Now we have a position where we can control our own destiny.

So it's different, but you still gotta go through the due process. I feel like this year the pressure on our race team is a lot less than what it was in 2010. The expectations are a lot less from the media and the fans' perspective, I believe.

So with that, you just race a little bit looser, and I've been in this position before and nerves aren't going to be an issue. I've done this tons of times, be part of a championship picture when it gets down to it. But everyone's gotta do their part, including myself.

Q. You talked so much at the start of the Chase you felt if you could get to the third round, some tracks that are good for you, and if you get to Homestead, you'd be in good position to win this thing. Do you get any sense that your team is kind of excited or can kind of taste that things might really be falling your way?

DENNY HAMLIN: Definitely the breaks are falling our way, for sure. The performance is not necessarily falling our way. But obviously we're kind of gifted some circumstances we're in right now. But we have an opportunity to capitalize on that.

And I believe if we can get to Homestead, you know I keep saying all right we've got to get to the third round, you can't think too far ahead. But if we can get to Homestead, I feel way more confident at that racetrack than what I do Phoenix, based off our performance. And we tested there.

We tested both these last two tracks, used two of our four team tests at these two tracks. So you would think that we would be pretty excited and obviously we are about the position that we're in. But this is what we were hoping for. Now, we ran similar to what I thought we would at Martinsville the first part of this eliminating round.

At Texas things did not go as well as we had hoped. We thought we'd be a lot more competitive. We weren't. We still got a top 10 out of it. And with other guys' mistakes, we put ourselves in a good spot.

But still I'm a believer we're going to a great racetrack of mine.

Q. Did you have any strong feelings, thoughts about what penalty should be for the fight last week and what are they?

DENNY HAMLIN: Not really. I don't really have any strong feelings about it one way or another. When things are as tense as they are and your whole season comes down to kind of one cut tire by somebody else, you're of course going to be upset.

So who knows what should happen. But definitely it will probably be monetary, if anything.

Q. Obviously a lot of debate about the move that Brad Keselowski made when he collided with Jeff Gordon near the end of the Texas race, whether there was a hole there or not. I was wondering if you had a chance to look at the replay and what you thought of the move, is it a move you would have made? Do you think there was enough room to justify it and do the circumstances itself maybe sort of justify it?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think going in, you know, I don't know what Brad thought. But I thought from my perspective, if I was in that car and shoes, that I would have to know that I'm not going to make it through that hole without having contact of some sort.

That's fine. But if it costs somebody a bad day, you're going to have to expect retaliation, which I'm sure he did. So you'll have to take it with a grain of salt.

Q. Would you have made that move?

DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. I think about that a lot and whether I would or would not. He was on fresher tires. So saying that that was his only opportunity to get the win may not necessarily be a true statement. He still had two laps to get around.

And if you push the 48 there past the 24, it was a battle between him and the 48. I don't know. You know, it's tough for me to say. And his points position, his actual position, I didn't have the tires he had. So everyone has a different way of doing things.

But I think a common feel amongst drivers is that what they call that, people are calling that a hole that that was a very small hole. And the car is call it six and a half, seven foot wide, that hole was six foot. It was not enough that a car was going to fit without being in contact. Somebody was going to have to pay the price. It was Jeff Gordon. And it made him have a bad day.

Q. Obviously with all the emotions and it being so wide open in the Phoenix with nobody now safe, I think people thought like at least one or two drivers would be safe. With all eight drivers not being safe, what is the atmosphere going to be like during the race, do you think, in terms of balancing going for the spot at Homestead versus retribution? If a guy falls several laps down is a Chase driver, do you think that's when we could see revenge being exacted at Phoenix?

DENNY HAMLIN: If there's no remorse, yes. I think that the challenge a lot of drivers probably have right now with Brad is there's no remorse. He has the right to feel the way that he feels. But when there's no accountability and you don't (indiscernible) they're going to be upset with you.

So you just have to expect it. It's tough to win a championship if nobody likes you. That is going to be a very, very tough task. So I mean I think that you're just going to have to -- you always have to just watch your mirror. And that's a tough way to race. It really is a tough way to race.

I learned the very, very hard way about that. But everyone's on their own agenda and Brad's got his agenda and he's entitled to that. So we all gotta just do the best we can and if we have a bad day, this is typically where the point of the season where people get back at each other when they feel like they've been done wrong.

Q. Of course back to the fight. When you look at the aftermath of what happened, once you got home, what did you see there? What are all the variables involved that made that such an intense moment?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think it was the moment where Brad kind of blew Jeff off was when it set things off and that kind of goes back to what I just talked about, with Nate. That the times that I've had tussles with Brad and other drivers, it's just oh, well, that's how a race is, just deal with it. As drivers, you're just looking at someone to say I'm sorry I ruined your day, I screwed up, oh, well, I apologize.

When that doesn't get said, then immediately it just lights a fire in your stomach that all he cares -- he doesn't have any remorse. It's just like oh, well, it's your problem. And I think that just lights a fire in your insides, especially when you just had a bad day and your season could have just rested on that one mistake or whatever you want to call it. I think that that really set things off.

I think if Brad would have talked to Jeff and said, man, I was going for a hole. It was my only chance, you know, I'm really sorry it cut your tire, I think it goes totally different.

Instead, it was oh, well, sorry, bud, you left a hole. If he did it to me I would have had the same reaction as Jeff. No question. I think that's what escalated it the most.

Q. I do want to ask you, with what you just said there, let's say that I'm a driver and we get into it and you come over to me and I apologize but it's a half-hearted apology or I don't mean it, that I think, well, that's your problem, I'm going to say oh I'm sorry that you had that, does that really go anywhere if there's nothing behind that apology? Is it almost better to, regardless of who you are, if I just say oh, well, as opposed to saying I'm really sorry when I don't mean it?

DENNY HAMLIN: You don't have to apologize. Brad doesn't have to apologize. I'll be 100 percent clear on that. But he just has to realize that (indiscernible) about not apologizing. Even if you don't mean it, just give the guy 30 seconds of your time to hear what he's got to say and have some dialogue.

To blow someone off and think that the world revolves around you is when it just -- you just escalate that person's feelings against you times 10. So sometimes you just have to just face the music and if you're in something, just listen to what the other person has to say and you may not always agree. And, look, I'm not the prime example.

I've made so many mistakes, it's silly. But I've learned from them. And I feel like I've gotten the respect of my competitors because of that. And that goes a long way when -- trust me, I can guarantee you this: If it comes down to the end of the race and someone can help me or they can help Brad and I've got the respect of that person, they're going to help me over Brad.

And if it comes down to a championship. And so you can't -- it's hard to win a championship on your own on the racetrack. And I feel like I've learned the hard way with that, that these guys can make your job hard, if they really want to.

And you've just gotta have some kind of friends out there in some kind of way. Even Dale Earnhardt had Dave Marcis. He had him there when he needed him, to block when he needed him. And even when Dale didn't have many friends, he had some allies out there. And I just believe that's an important part. And from my aspect, and this is getting a little off topic, but if you ask me do you want a championship trophy or do you want the respect of your peers, I will take the respect from my peers (indiscernible) because that trophy they can't put in my casket.

What's the fun of a NASCAR party that nobody shows up to? That's my opinion. (Indiscernible) that way. But when you look at one of the highest regarded people in our sport Mark Martin, he never won a Sprint Cup trophy. But I guarantee when it comes to Hall of Fame Day, he'll have more support than anyone.

Q. You talked about learning the hard way. Does that go back in essence to 2010 where there were things, if so? Or when you were talking about learning the hard way about about trying to win and not having the friends, what did you learn from and what was the experience like on the track? Can you give me examples of learning from that experience and how people didn't help you as much in that case?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, so my moment was probably in 2007, with Kyle Petty. And Kyle will tell you, he was in my way. I was running third and he was a lap down. And I ran in the back of him, put him in the wall. (Indiscernible) and we all knew that at Dover. And then we had a sit-down. He said I need you to come to my motor home. We need to sit down and talk.

He says: Look, you don't know how many other drivers text me or called me and said: I'm glad you did that to that punk, he has no respect for anyone else. And immediately I was like: Wait a minute, no other driver's like me? Some people care about that. Some people don't.

But immediately I was like: Well, that's not something I want. I don't want to be a driver that has zero respect from my peers. I want to be someone who people look up to, other drivers.

And so that was my moment where I was like: Man, I've got to change the way I do things both on the track and a little bit off the track as well.

And I feel like, you know, you don't have to run into people to be successful. And when I hear Brad say that this is the only way a person like me can make it, what do you mean like you? I had to get here just on hard work too. I didn't have money behind me or anything else. What's the difference?

I hate that statement. And I feel like it's a scapegoat statement when it says this is the only way that a person like me can make it.

That's not true. You made it because people see potential in the way he drives and that he is fast and he does a great job and has already won a championship in a very short career. I believe that that is a bad statement that he throws out there every time. But it's his prerogative and he can do what he wants. He has a job and has an owner that loves him and he's driving for a very fast crew chief.

He's got a lot of really good things working for him. In my opinion, and I want to stress my opinion because this is what I think, is that he just has got to work on the respect factor from his peers.

Q. Based on what we've seen so far in the Chase, both the racing on the track and everything that's gone on afterwards, what do you expect at Phoenix? And are those expectations any different than what they might have been, say, in a previous Chase like last year or the year before?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think for sure it's going to be more intense. Obviously we talked about it, you're going to have eight guys that have a shot at making it. We all know winning puts us in.

I think there's three of us that can finish top 10 and make it. But everyone else is going to be fighting for a win. And knowing that that win could be the finale, I don't know, it would be in my opinion as intense as you've seen each one of these last weekends.

So these cut-off races, obviously, are huge and pivotal, but not sure we've ever had really nobody eliminated going into an elimination race.

So I don't know. I would just tell the fans to hang on and buckle up and see what happens.

Q. You said going into Martinsville that if you can't finish these races at this point, it doesn't matter how much tour speed you have. Obviously some of your Chase rivals had setbacks in this round. Still one race to go. But personally, from a team standpoint, how satisfying is it to be where you are in the Chase race without perhaps that same pure speed than some of your rivals have had?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, it's just a total different beast now than what it used to be. And I firmly believe that at this point of the season you're going to have to run top 5 each one of these three weeks to make it to Homestead on points.

We haven't had those top 5s, even though we've kind of -- we've been running there, we just haven't finished there as well, with the exception of this weekend.

It's just other guys have made mistakes, not of their own doing, but whether it be wrecks or pit stops or penalties. It's given us an opportunity to capitalize on those mistakes. It's going to be much higher than what we thought to get in on points. But still I say this all the time. If you just wanted to go off of (indiscernible) like opinion, that they would think that the Broncos and the Seahawks should be in the Super Bowl every year until other teams prove that they can win as much as them. But they still have to go through the due process of getting there.

They have to win the wildcard games. They have to win the divisional games. They have to win the conference championships. You have to go through the due process.

And some of these fast cars that everyone deemed as favorites are not getting through that due process as cleanly as probably they should or they've had bad luck along the way. So it's allowing us, the teams that you could say are the underdogs, to kind of pounce on them and kind of just grind our way to hopefully a championship shot at Homestead.

So I love the format for that reason. If I was the other groups, I probably definitely wouldn't. But we have to live in the formats that are in front of us. And this is the best way that we can keep moving on at this point.

Q. Is it a stretch to say that Brad is the most disliked driver in the garage?

DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. I can't speak for many other guys. But I mean it's just -- there's a lot of animosity. And that's all that you can really say.

And so I don't know. It's just something that's happened and a lot of built-up frustration over the years.

Q. Kevin has vowed that Matt Kenseth won't win the title this year. Would you be shocked if Brad wins it this year?

DENNY HAMLIN: I wouldn't be shocked off of speed. Those guys have had the speed, the Penske cars really all year long. There's about six or seven cars that have shown speed all year long from top to bottom. And I think once Brad won the race, probably became the overwhelming favorite to win the title.

Of course, when you had drama along the way, it hurts your chances. It does not help your chances one bit. But would I be surprised? No. Simply because if he gets out here, wins the polls and leads all the laps, it's going to be a pretty easy road.

He's got the capability of doing that. So you wouldn't doubt anything that really that team could do.

Q. If you were king of NASCAR, are you more tolerant of this format or do you actually like it? And if you were the king, would you revert to what it was in 2010 where it sorted of selectively eliminated people more gradually?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think the way we have it is the reason that -- the way we have it is kind of what has set up the intensity that we've got. We know where we have to be after three races each time. We have to be out of that bottom four. So it gives us a goal to shoot at.

And with that, when there's a target that you don't know where it's at, it's harder for us, for the fans to be mesmerized about can this guy get to this position or not.

We know we have to get to a certain position. It makes us do things that we wouldn't normally probably do. So I like it the way it is, personally. But you have to know that one bad race is probably going to end your season the further along this Chase gets.

So unless you're going to go out there and win races. So I like it personally the way it is. I think NASCAR hit a total home run with this format and obviously it shows up with the intensity that the drivers are showing right now.

Q. Could you reflect back on 2010? Do you sit back at times and reflect on wow, how close you came and what you might have done differently or whether you were actually ready for a championship. People say you have to lose one before you win one. Is that something that comes to mind with any frequency?

DENNY HAMLIN: I'm sorry, you were breaking up there.

Q. Do you reflect back on 2010 and think with any frequency about how close you came and what you might have done, if anything, differently and whether you were ready to win a championship? You know how people say you've got to lose one before you win one?

DENNY HAMLIN: You know, I don't think about it actually that often unless we're watching a highlight film or something like that of something on news.

I think every now and then what we could have done differently. (Indiscernible) I'm better when we got down to Homestead. But you can't really second-guess. You have to live in the now and (indiscernible) done a really good job thinking about s frustrated as I was right out of the car at Texas, about, man, we should have finished top 5, I immediately -- could have, would have, should have means nothing now. Here's where we are in points and here's what we have to do when we get to Phoenix. Forget what we could have done at Texas to be better.

I feel like I'm better now at thinking forward versus thinking backwards. And in 2010, I feel like at Homestead I was still kind of bummed about what happened at Phoenix, where I think that no matter what happens at Phoenix this time around I'm totally looking forward on what's in front of me and completing each task and really started at Homestead in 2010 with qualifying.

I wasn't even thinking about qualifying on Friday. It was what do we have to do to beat Jimmy by -- or be within three spots of Jimmy in the race and end up qualifying 30 something.

So my job is just to do whatever is in front of me at that point and that's what I feel like I've learned throughout the years of being in these kind of championship pictures.

Q. You had mentioned just a minute ago that of course you'll drive, try to win at Phoenix but you also know that if you finish in the top 10 you'll advance. So you've got to be cautious, but how thin is the line between being cautious and being too cautious?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think as tense as eight drivers are going to be this weekend, cautious is going to make you finish about 17th. So I can't count on that. I think that I have to be aggressive (indiscernible) you especially can't be lax on restarts. The freight train, stuck on the top line, can't get down. There's a lot of factors that track does not allow you to be conservative at.

So I go there more worried about can we finish top 10 on performance than I am, hey, let's just kind of back our way into it, let's just kind of coast to the finish line here. I just don't think that with eight guys still in it, that's going to be possible.


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