Denny Hamlin speaking with 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 this past year has been, ‘Well, how are you going to balance being an owner versus doing your job as a driver?’ You know, all of that has fueled me to focus even more.”
True to his words, the month of July has been a wild and chaotic one for Hamlin. Indeed, last weekend’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway was a wild affair on a host of levels for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota, as he found himself caught up in a racing incident with consistent rival Ross Chastain. If that wasn’t enough, not long after flashing beneath the finish line at Pocono with what was apparently his 49th Cup victory, word came down form NASCAR that Hamlin was being disqualified for having a few pieces of tape that were 2-inches wide, 5 ½ inches long and 0.012 inches thick on the lower fascia of his race car.
Factor in the recent announcement that Hamlin’s 23XI Racing outfit had hired sensational young driver Tyler Reddick for the 2024 Cup season and it’s easy to see that 18-year NASCAR veteran driver has been a man in the middle of most everything.
Q: Recently, you’ve talked about a match being lit beneath the 23XI Racing team. Is that how you feel?
DENNY HAMLIN: I do. I really feel like those guys are starting to run well and be consistent, which is really all I hoped for from the very beginning. I wanted us to show some ability to get better and I believe that they’re doing that. Bubba and Kurt have been driving to the front. That’s been the downside that I feel like that team has had (in the past) – when adversity hits them, they haven’t always bounced back that well. But I the last few weeks, the team has picked that up and that has been their MO.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you feel that Toyota still has some work to do when it comes to the short track and road course races. True?
DH: Yep, that’s somewhere where the Toyotas really needed to get better and I feel the showing that we had at New Hampshire really was a good showing for our teams, because that is a track that we kind of equate to Phoenix where we go race for a championship. We need to run well on those types of tracks. I would say that we were light years better at New Hampshire than we were at Phoenix, which is another one-mile track, so yeah, overall I feel that we’re pretty good; that we’re starting to get honed in on the short tracks. Now, the road courses are still a question mark. We’ve got to get better on those, but generally speaking, it looks the Toyotas in general are all starting to hit their stride.
Q: Right after I watched you click off the final few laps to win Pocono, I took my daughter down to the beach to go surfing. When we got home I found out you’d had the race win stripped away from you. It’s been nearly 60 years since NASCAR has done that…
DH: They’re really trying to put their foot down on this new car and making sure we’re not messing with any areas that we shouldn’t be messing in. A lot of that is because of the business of it all. They’re trying to help us help ourselves and not spend ridiculous money on these cars for development. That way we can make this a viable business. What had happened was just simply a mix-up with our team. When they pulled the wrap on the car back, my crew chief in particular, was like, ‘Um, what is that? I never even saw that before.’ So it was a shock to us, for sure. I think that generally speaking, if this was any other year but this year with this new car, you would have never even heard about this. It would have been so small that NASCAR would have said, ‘Just don’t bring that back again.’ That’s the way it has always been.
Q: So NASCAR used the infraction to set an example to everyone else?
Q: You and Ross Chastain got into again at Pocono with 18 laps to go. Are you guys going to be able to put all of this behind you?
DH: (Pause). I mean, we’ll see. I hate to give a definitive answer there. Obviously, I know I definitely feel like I was kind of wronged multiple times with him. Certainly this one at Pocono was kind of a racing incident where I just didn’t leave him any space. I didn’t run into him, I just didn’t leave him anywhere to go (laughter). I left him with no options. I don’t know… We’ll just play things by ear from this point forward. It doesn’t matter about who it is or what it is – for me it is just the principal of it, you know? I’m a little chafed about losing the regular season title last year to Kyle Larson because we got taken out at the Indy road course race by Chase Briscoe. Then Alex Bowman got us at Martinsville with five laps to go when we should have won that race. That result could have taken us to the Final 4. There has been a lot boiling over on this that has fueled my frustration. All this raw stuff has just added to it.
Q: You’re eighth in NASCAR Cup Series points and on solid ground regarding the playoffs. How do you feel about your place as we move towards the month of August?
DH: I feel pretty good about it. I mean, obviously it was a pretty big swing of playoff points for us where instead of us getting five point points, we gave that to a competitor and we don’t like that by any means. But yeah, we’re running strong and my pit crew is starting to really hit its stride, so I definitely like where I’m at.
Q: And you guys will have Tyler Reddick climbing into a 23XI Racing car come 2024?
DH: Yeah, we’re super-excited and stoked about Tyler. There are franchise drivers that come around every couple of decades and this is one of them. I’m very, very confident in this. If you ask his peers, and you can ask Kyle Larson, and you can ask anyone who races against him and they’ll say, ‘Man, he’s really, really, really good.’ I know that I got a text from a lot of other different car owners saying, ‘Dang, you really snagged one with that guy!’ I’m very happy. And I’m not only happy about getting him, but I’m also happy with him choosing us at 23XI Racing. That 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’ve said that it would take five years for us to compete for a championship and we are in the year 1.5 right now. We’re well on our way to beat that timeline, so I think we’ve just got to keep the horse on track. I really believe we’re going to be a multi-race-winning and championship-contending team every year in the very near future.
Q: And is Kurt Busch doing everything you need him to do?
DH: He is. I mean, Kurt has been a rock star for us. He’s just been so good about doing everything that we’ve asked him to do, and obviously we’re just trying to get him healthy at this point. He’s taken some bumps and lumps here early in the season that has sort of compounded some of these issues. Our number one focus is trying to get him as healthy as we can. We ant to get him healthy because he is the anchor that keeps this team together.
Q: How are you looking for the road course race at the Brickyard this weekend?
DH: I think we need to set modest goals with the road courses this year. Sonoma was a disaster, to say the least. We all did really bad there. At Road America we all stepped forward. I thought we had two or three cars that were good enough to run top 15. A couple of them were on the edge of the top 10. Now we need to move that bar a little bit lower and say, ‘Alright, now we can get two or three cars inside the top 10.’ It takes a process to get good on all these racetracks. While we want to go out there and win, and that is the goal when we unload, we have to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘if we run in the top 10 then we’ve made progress’.