Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin talking to the NASCAR media last month:
“My passion for work is still really, really high and I knew that I wanted to run a business. I didn’t know what that would business would be, it turns out it’s team ownership. And hopefully I make the right decisions in the long term to make that all work out.”
Since announcing in autumn of 2020 that he and NBA Hall of Fame basketball superhero Michael Jordan would be forming 23XI Racing around team driver Bubba Wallace for the 2021 NASCAR Cup season, Hamlin has been terrifically busy in his role of main man with the master plan. And now with the Busch Light Clash set for the storied Los Angeles Coliseum this weekend, Hamlin’s to-do-list has become akin to mashing the throttle into the floor of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry.
Coming off two wins, 19 top fives and 1,502 laps led and yet another Championship 4 appearance in 2021, Hamlin’s racing house is certainly in order. But in the role of team owner? That’s still very much in development mode.
Q: What’s your take on the Los Angeles Coliseum race set for this weekend?
DENNY HAMLIN: It’ll probably lean itself towards being a s***show and that’s kind of what we’re expecting. I don’t know, really. I don’t think anyone really knows. Obviously it’ll be by far the smallest track we’ll ever have gone to. It will certainly get pretty physical, and I’m sure there will be some road blocks here and there, but it will be something new.
Q: Everyone has been quite busy in getting their heads wrapped around the new Next Gen car. What do you think? Is the car coming around to where all involved want it to be?
DH: Yeah, it’s starting to be. It will take time. I mean, every generation of the car that has come out has been unique. I’ve been part of four different cars now. It has honestly taken at least a year to get the car to drive and race like it capable of doing. I think this car will just take a little bit more time. A lot of that is due to the fact that we have to deal with the reality of manufactured parts. If something is not exactly right, we just have to rely on the vendor to make it better or to have a redesign. Everything just takes a lot longer to make changes than back when we were doing everything ourselves So you know, as far as competition, it just will take time and we need to caution everyone to be patient with that.
Q: You’ve recently spoken about having to be “planned and programmed” to pull all of this stuff off. You’ve certainly got an overflowing plate, don’t you?
DH: Yeah, for sure. I love what I do. I knew what I was getting into when I started all of this, but it certainly has kept me busy, and really all it did was take away my free time, and the time I’d be spending golfing or whatever is now Zoom calls and work, and so it’s just part of it. I’m kind of making sure that I’m positioning myself in a good place once my driving career is over years and years down the road. We’ve seen it with Kurt [Busch], too. I think his enthusiasm has ramped back up with all of this stuff. You know, this can be a grind. Anytime you do this for almost 20 years it takes its toll on you, and I think that we’ve seen that with Kurt and myself, especially.
“Listen, anytime you know you can show up and win any given week, it is hard to turn that away and it’s hard to go away from that. Especially being as competitive as I am. As long as I can stay at the high level that I’m at now, I don’t foresee myself making any career changes. We always think we’ve got a chance. We’re capable, we have a chance and that’s all I can really ask for as a driver. I just need to make sure I have an opportunity to win a championship. The moment that I feel that I can’t do that, then I’ll reevaluate. That doesn’t look like it’s on the horizon.
Q: How has everything been developing for 23XI as we creep up on the green flag being dropped on 2022?
DH: It’s really good. The biggest challenge anytime you double in size, or more than double in size, is keeping morale good. How do you keep it to where you still feel like a family organization where people love going to work? It’s been busy! I mean, we are doing photo shoots now, we are getting ready for the season, we are doing all of our promotional stuff, we are hiring new and exciting people who are from outside of racing, versus kind of recycled employees who have gone from team to team. I really like the direction that we’re heading in, and I really love the competition guys that we have hired to head up the setups of the car and things like that.
“It’s really fun right now. Like any business, workforce is a little bit of a struggle right now. Just making sure that you’ve got the truckers and things like that. It’s just making sure that you’re keeping those people that you have and you’re keeping them happy.
Q: You, Michael Jordan, Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace have all spoken about this team transmitting a bigger message than that of a traditional NASCAR Cup team. You’re a very creative race team with a vision, huh?
DH: For sure. I think that the little bit that I’ve gotten to work with Kurt at the test, he’s so much better than I thought he was. You can only really identify someone’s talent is when you kind of race against them in the same equipment. He and his team have been very, very good and Bubba just got back in the car for the first time in Phoenix this off-season. It’s really a good time now, and it’s also kind of a nervous time. We are a little bit short on cars and parts compared to what we would normally be going into a season, so it’s just really going to be a challenge for us to get through the first five races. If we can get through the first five races, I think we’ll be in a good position with our inventory and we won’t be so nervous about it, but it is still a factor right now.
“I’m excited. Every time of year, and this time especially, your production stuff is pretty much buttoned up and done. Now we are just one week away from the race track again. It’s nervous time but it’s also exciting because this is going to be the start of a new season and hopefully the start of something great for our team.
Q: I recently read an interview where you said, “I’ll race until I’m Mark Martin.” I got a huge kick out of that. Is that really how you feel?
DH: Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to have the career that he has had. That’s a huge honor. The guy is just well-respected with his peers. If you ask people who raced against him, they hold him in the highest regard. I love doing what I’m doing because I would argue that I’m as good as I’ve ever been and the results are showing that.
Q: The 2022 NASCAR Cup title. Can you win it?
DH: Oh, there is no question. I just need some kind of break to fall our way when it counts. You know, anytime you have one racer take all, you have to have some elements that are out of your control and go your way, and I just haven’t had that moment happen yet. Absolutely we can win. We’ve been in the final four now in the last three years, so yes, every year is a new opportunity.