Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was made available to media at Daytona 500 Media Day:
DENNY HAMLIN, No.11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Talk about your owner. You were just a kid when he decided to go from NFL coaching to owning a racecar team. Did you think it was odd?
“Yeah, I mean, it was very interesting for me because at the time I was living in Virginia, (the) Redskins were my favorite team. That’s our home team there in Virginia. So my favorite football coach starting a race team at a time where I was hooked with the racing bug right there when I was 12 years old, it was a perfect combination. It’s weird, I used to have dreams of driving the FedEx car, this is when I was a kid, before FedEx even had a race team. For me to sign with my favorite football coach, have the sponsor that I had dreams about, really weird it all played out that way. I ended up getting the same number that I grew up racing when I was a kid. I grew up racing a purple and white 11. I stayed with a purple and white 11 here in the Cup Series. I think where the dreams came from, at the time thinking of the purple and white, I thought it would be awesome to drive the purple and white FedEx car in the Cup Series.”
Did you talk to Joe, did he have the racing bug when he was coaching football?
“Yeah, I’m not sure how that came about. I think when he retired from coaching or was getting towards retirement in coaching, he was looking obviously at what he was going to do. He’s not one of those guys that sits at home, just hangs out and does chores around the house. He likes to work hard. That really is, in my opinion, the difference in him and any other team owner, is that he’s at the race shop every single day at 8 a.m. calling sponsors, walking down the shop, figuring out how we can be faster.”
How is he as a boss?
“He’s the best. He finds a way to intimidate you even though he’s not an intimidating guy. That’s what I really admire about him. You know when he’s serious about what he’s saying, and it gets your attention.”
Can you give us an example?
“Yeah, I guess it was probably 2008 or 2009 when we were going through the relationship with Toyota. We were going through some growing pains at the time that he stood up and threw his pencil down and he looked at all the engineers and said, “You guys are the ones that said this is the right move for us, now you make it work”. The drivers were all giving him, “We need better this, that”. But he had the long term plan in place. I don’t second guess Joe on anything that he has planned for us. It’s been a great relationship that I’ve had over the last 16 years with him. Continues to grow.”
What has been the key to all the success and motivation?
“I kind of mentioned, I think he’s the hardest working owner. I don’t know every owner personally. I know the big, major race teams. This is all they do. This is their business. They don’t have a lot of other side businesses they have to focus on, hundred million dollar businesses. This is where the Gibbs family has planted all their seeds for the future. When you do that, you just can concentrate on this one thing, you’re certainly going to get better results. That’s what they’re doing.”
You knew his reputation when he coached, sleeping in the office at 3:00 a.m.
“I hear stories. A lot of people that came over from the Washington Redskins staff came over with him when he came back from his stint in the 2000s. They said he had to deal with some interesting personalities. He would always tell stories about some of the guys, just really funny stories. I just got to thinking about that he’s reached the gauntlet dealing with me, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. He loves punishment clearly. He just finds a way to deal with us all, put up with our nonsense at times, but also gets the best out of us.”
How can you match the success of 2019?
“It’s almost impossible. You never know. I don’t think anyone counted on us winning six races last year. I think there’s always someone within a season that no one saw coming winning a lot of races you weren’t counting on. I don’t see that being different this year with someone else. I think our organization is primed to have a lot of success. When you look at the short track package, as much as I was advocating for a change to get back to a lower weight, lower downforce level, we didn’t finish out of the top five in any of the short tracks last year. It’s almost careful what you wish for. I enjoy the challenge of us going out there. I like our chances any time there are changes, that our organization adapts quicker than anyone.”
You come to this place now, do you have a different attitude, a different confidence here? Is this one of your places?
“Yeah, I mean, it is. People think of us a lot of times throughout my career as a short track guy. Really, I deem myself a short track guy who has just adapted really well to superspeedway racing. A lot of that has come from watching some of the best do it. Tony Stewart I think is a great example of someone that I learned a lot from on superspeedways. Even though he didn’t win this race, he put himself in position to win a lot of them. He’s the guy that I kind of idolized, looked at the way he did things. Dale Jr. as well. Over the second half of my career, I really have been a student of the game on how can I improve, how can I put myself in a better position to finish these races.”
What is the feeling coming here as the defending Daytona 500 champion and trying to do it again?
“It’s tough, but there is more confidence. You know the things you’ve been doing have been successful. I won’t change any of that until it doesn’t work any more and I have to adapt. I think it’s been really a great run we’ve had over the last eight years in particular. We’ve been a factor to win every Daytona 500 it seems like for the last decade. I come here thinking there’s no reason that should be any different.”
How do you decide what moves to make in the race?
“I really trust my intuition and instincts. I mean, I can feel when the level of intensity starts ramping up. There’s been times where I just remove myself from that situation. I’ll just pull out of the draft, go backwards, say that there’s something about to happen here, and I know odds and statistics are going to say in this position I’m sitting in, there’s a high percentage I’m going to be in a wreck here. So I get myself out of it, get to the finish, then go from there. I am up front more, so it seems like you would think the chances of the big one starting, you’re going to be free from it. Over the last few years, the average position from the big one starting has went from sixth to third. Now you have to be even further up front to try to avoid statistically where you’re going to be in it. I think it’s always changing. You got to continue to adapt and make sure you sense and when you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, make sure you get out, put yourself in a position to get to the finish.”
Can you talk about the importance your spotter?
“When you look at the success when we had at the speedways, it’s right when we changed spotters. He’s good at painting me a picture where I don’t have to check up on him in my rearview mirror. Having that confidence, there’s no time to react, especially with this spoiler and how big the runs are coming, I do not have time to check to make sure what my spotter is telling me is true. He paints the picture, I put it all in my mind, and I essentially have a rearview mirror in my mind I’m seeing as I’m driving forward.”
When Joe went back to coaching, what was your thoughts?
“I thought it was great. I bought a house right next to him. I thought he wasn’t going to be home for the most part. It turns out he came back and I had to move away from being his neighbor. At the time J.D. had such a huge role within the organization, it was pretty seamless to have J.D. taking over the roles that Joe had. Certainly our benefit and our strength of having Joe is being one of the guys out there selling sponsorships. He is, in my opinion, the best salesman in the world. That’s why you see the huge companies on the side of our racecars. But having J.D. being able to take in and really come in and do a great job for those few years, it made the company kind of flow. That’s why the success never wavered. We were neighbors in North Carolina. I actually chose to buy a house next to him. Not the best choice ever.”
Who challenges you the most at the type of racing since you’ve been up front a lot of times? Who is the guy that you enjoy racing but also is the one that kind of is challenging, they push you?
“Yeah, I mean, I think Brad (Keselowski) is that person for me. I think he’s very, very fair. I think that we drive and race similar. I wouldn’t have said that early in my career, for sure. I think that we definitely have very similar styles where we manage our risk, but we find our way to keep ourselves up front in a manageable way. I mean, it just seems like we find ourselves up there. Now, the results, we don’t always win all the races, but certainly it seems like more often than not you’ll find one of the two of us if not both up front.”
You reference analytics, studying more. Everybody does it to some degree. Brad has been more of a thinking type of guy. Is it because you have gotten beat at times? How has that evolved with you? I don’t think of you doing that as much earlier in your career.
“Yeah, no, I think it really took a turn for me really six to seven to eight years ago where I really started paying attention to why is Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. continuing to be up front in these races and I’m continuing to be in the garage or at the infield care center. Like there’s something not right. We got the same equipment, what’s going on? I just started studying what they do, how they manage their risk, how they create runs, how they stay up front. I just started learning from it. Then the cars have changed, the rules packages have change, but I’ve continued to evolve how I do it from an analytic standpoint and it’s kind of worked out.”
You mentioned you saved seven and a half days last year using the plane. Dale Jr.’s scare, thoughts?
“It makes you think. Certainly makes you think and second guess your choices. Kobe and those guys have been doing it for a very long time. I have a lot of faith in the people in the aviation department, I put a lot of faith in them. You look at a lot of the crashes that have happened, most of them have been human error or bad choices that have been made. We always try to hedge on the safe side when it comes to conditions and things like that. It’s so unfortunate, but these things happen. Sometimes when it happens to a star athlete, someone that is that big and well known, it definitely makes you open your eyes a little bit.”
At the end of the Clash, you were pushing Erik. Do you expect the end of the 500 may play out with pushing, that sort of thing?
“It very well could. But the difference would be that his car was so damaged, it was pushing his car back into mine. He had such big nose damage, it kept our lock tighter than what it normally is. If you have two cars that are pretty healthy, that lock is not as strong. That’s not to say I won’t be seeking out wrecked cars when it comes down to the end of it if I’m still around. It was something special which I linked up there, I knew he was in for a ride as long as he held on.”
Is that practice for the 500?
“No, I would have made the move much, much sooner. I didn’t want to get in his checkered flag photo. I was just trying to get out of there.”
Daytona changed the date next year. Have you thought about what that means for Speedweeks, the Clash, all that?
“I don’t know when it is. I’m bad. I haven’t really seen what the updated schedule is.”
Starting a week earlier.
“I think that’s good. I don’t mind them starting a week earlier. I think they’re trying to hem up the end of the season at a certain date in the fall. I’m all for it. I think schedule changes, things like that that they’ve made have definitely made things better.”
Can this race turn into a demolition derby?
“I mean, it’s true. I talk about trying to be in the right position. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to get wrecked on the first lap. It’s just one of those things where in any other sport, right, when your competition makes a mistake, you capitalize. In our sport, the competition makes a mistake and it can cost you, as well. That’s what’s really different about it. I just try to make sure I put myself in the best position that I think is the safest position. That doesn’t mean I always make safe moves, but I feel like the moves I make are thought out and I try to manage my risk. It’s just part of it. I think the law of averages would tell you I’m due to get crashed out about the next six or seven Daytona 500s, because the last six or eight I haven’t. I’ve been a factor to be at the end. You just never know. I’ll continue to try to do the same thing. Who knows what happens.”
How frustrating is that for a driver?
“You have to think about it. If I end up crashed here by my own doing or someone else’s, I just have to realize that many other people crashed before me that it hasn’t been their fault. You have to move on to the next race. Can’t get caught up too much in it. We put a lot of emphasis on this race, how prestigious it is, what it means to do it. As long as I do the best job possible, I’ll live with the outcome no matter what it is.”
What would it mean to you to win your third Daytona 500?
“I don’t know the difference in two and three, the number of winners. I know it would mean a lot to me personally. I think you really become a part of a very, very elite class with that third one. I think of all the ones that I did not win over the last 10 years that I should have won, just made bad decisions. But I think I still got quite a few years ahead of me to get that third one. Hopefully it’s this year.”
You won the photo finish, does that tell you how hard it is to win this thing?
“It’s very hard. I don’t go into these Daytona 500s expecting to win. I go into it hoping to win, but definitely not expecting because there’s just too many moving parts and pieces for you to guarantee your success. I’m confident the things that I do that have been successful, and I’ll continue to do them here in 2020.”
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