RACING

INTERVIEW: It’s been quite a week for Denny Hamlin

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Denny Hamlin interviews this writer on the eve of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. “My life is chaos. I just look at my daily schedule and all the things I have to do, and I know a big story with a lot of people in the last year has been, ‘Well, how are you? do you balance being an owner versus doing your job as a driver?’ You know, all of this made me focus even more.

True to his words, July was wild and chaotic for Hamlin. Indeed, last weekend’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway was a wild affair on many levels for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota driver as he got caught up in a racing incident with constant rival Ross Chastain. If that wasn’t enough, shortly after flashing under the finish line at Pocono with what was reportedly his 49th Cup victory, word came from NASCAR that Hamlin was disqualified for having some 2 pieces of duct tape. inches wide, 5 ½ inches long and 0.012 inches thick on the lower fairing of his race car.

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Consider the recent announcement that Hamlin’s 23XI Racing team has signed sensational young driver Tyler Reddick for the 2024 Cup season and it’s easy to see that the 18-year-old veteran NASCAR driver has been a man in the middle. of almost everything.

Q: Recently, you talked about a lit match under the 23XI Racing team. Is this how you feel?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yes. I really feel like these guys are starting to run well and be consistent, that’s really all I was hoping for from the start. I wanted us to show some ability to improve and I believe they are doing that. Bubba and Kurt drove forward. That’s the downside I feel like this team has had (in the past) – when adversity hits them, they haven’t always bounced back well. But over the past few weeks the team has figured this out and this has been their MO.

Q: You mentioned that you think Toyota still has some work to do when it comes to short track and road racing. True?

DH: Yeah, it’s somewhere the Toyotas really needed to improve and I think the performance we had in New Hampshire was a really good performance for our teams because it’s a track that we assimilate sort of in Phoenix where we’re going to race for a championship. We have to race well on these types of tracks. I would say we were light years better in New Hampshire than in Phoenix, which is another one-mile track, so yeah, overall I think we’re pretty good; that we are starting to improve on the short tracks. Now road courses are still a question mark. We need to improve on these, but generally speaking it looks like Toyotas in general are all starting to hit their stride.

Q: Right after seeing you click the final laps to win Pocono, I took my daughter to the beach to go surfing. When we got home, I found the race win had been taken away from you. It’s been nearly 60 years since NASCAR did this…

DH: They’re really trying to get their foot on this new car and make sure we don’t touch any areas that we shouldn’t be touching. It’s largely because of all of this. They are trying to help us help ourselves and not spend ridiculous money on these cars for development. This way we can make it a viable business. What happened was just a mix-up with our team. When they pulled the film over the car, my crew chief in particular said, ‘Uh, what’s that? I had never even seen this before. So it was a shock for us, for sure. I think generally speaking, if it was any other year than this year with this new car, you wouldn’t even have heard of it. It would have been so small that NASCAR would have said, “Don’t bring that back.” That’s how it’s always been.

A few stray pieces of tape erased Pocono’s victory last weekend. Motorsport pictures

Q: So NASCAR used the offense to set an example for everyone?

DH: Yes.

Q: You and Ross Chastain returned to Pocono with 18 laps to go. Will you be able to put all this behind you?

DH: (Pause). I mean, we’ll see. I hate to give a definitive answer there. Obviously, I know I really feel like I’ve been wronged many times with him. Admittedly, this one at Pocono was some kind of racing incident where I just didn’t give him space. I didn’t bump into him, I just didn’t let him go where to go (laugh). I left it without options. I don’t know… We’ll just play things by ear from now on. It doesn’t matter who it is or what it is – for me it’s just the main thing, you know? I’m a little peeved that we lost the regular season title last year to Kyle Larson because we got knocked out at the Indy road race by Chase Briscoe. Then Alex Bowman took us to Martinsville with five laps to go when we should have won that race. This result could have taken us to Final 4. There was a lot of excitement about this which fueled my frustration. All that raw stuff just got added to it.

Q: You’re eighth in NASCAR Cup Series points and on solid ground when it comes to the playoffs. How do you feel about your spot as we move forward into August?

DH: I feel pretty good. I mean, obviously, it was a pretty big playoff points swing for us where instead of getting five points, we gave that to a contender and we don’t like that at all. But yeah, we’re running strong and my pit crew are really starting to pick up their pace, so I’m really liking where I’m at.

Q: And Tyler Reddick will be riding in a 23XI Racing car in 2024?

DH: Yeah, we’re super excited and thrilled with Tyler. There are franchise pilots that come back every two decades and this one is one of them. I’m very, very confident in that. If you ask his peers, and you can ask Kyle Larson, and you can ask anybody who runs against him and they’ll be like, “Man, he’s really, really, really good.” I know I’ve gotten a text from a lot of other different car owners saying, ‘Dang, you really took one with that guy!’ I am very happy. And I’m not only happy to have had him, but I’m also happy that he chose us at 23XI Racing. It really gives me a lot of confidence that he has in our future and where we are going.

I mean, we’re in a building process. I said it would take us five years to compete for a championship and we are currently in year 1.5. We’re on track to beat that deadline, so I think we just have to keep the horse on track. I really believe we are going to be a multi-race winning team and championship contender every year for the very near future.

There’s still a season and a half to go before Tyler Reddick races in 23XI colours, but Hamlin is confident it will be worth it. Motorsport footage

Q: And does Kurt Busch do everything you want him to do?

DH: He is. I mean, Kurt was a rock star for us. He’s just been so good at doing everything we asked him to do, and obviously we’re just trying to get him healthy at this point. He had bumps and bumps here at the start of the season, which kind of compounded some of those issues. Our number one goal is to try to make it as healthy as possible. We want him to be healthy because he is the anchor that holds this team together.

Q: How do you envision the road race at The Brickyard this weekend?

DH: I think we have to set ourselves modest goals with the road courses this year. Sonoma was a disaster, to say the least. We all did very badly there. At Road America, we’ve all taken a step forward. I thought we had two or three cars that were good enough to run in the top 15. A couple of them were on the edge of the top 10. Now we have to move that bar a bit lower and say, ‘ Okay, now we can get two or three cars in the top 10. ‘It takes a process to get good at all these racetracks. When we want to go out there and win, and is the objective when you unload, you have to be honest with yourself and say to yourself ‘if you run in the top 10 it means that you have progressed’.

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