Denny Hamlin heads into Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway — the third race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup — third in championship points, seven points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and six behind second-place driver Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin is the winningest driver in Sprint Cup competition so far this year with five trips to victory lane, including last weekend’s dominating win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Hamlin was a part of this week’s NASCAR teleconference. Here’s the transcript:
Q. You and Darian Grubb obviously hit it off pretty quick, you opened the season up pretty well. Has there been a point in the season where you felt that y’all really connected; that things were clicking, not only with you and Darian, but with the team as a whole?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, you’d like to think that everything gets better with age and time. But really we have just learned from our mistakes more than anything. In July when we had the race lapped up in New Hampshire, we made a communication error. So we have learned from all the mistakes that we’ve made.
So I think it’s just timing things and you start to figure out one’s personality. And I think that he’s just done a good job of communicating with me and kind of building this team over the course of the year.
We are still our first year into this relationship, and I think just years down the road, it’s going to continue to get better.
Q. When you sat down before the Chase got started and you won last week at New Hampshire, was there a plan you put into place where you are able to say, look, here is what I learned from my Chase experience; or is it just let’s go week-to-week the way beverage been doing?
DENNY HAMLIN: It’s been more or less week-to-week with me and Darian, figuring out what each other needs to hear and then I’m on the radio in the car inside or outside de briefing with the team.
We have just learned as we went and things have gone really well and relatively smooth this year. We had a few hiccups where some of the strategy has bit us, but for the most part, he’s just done an amazing job of keeping us in the game, obviously keeping everyone’s focus and getting us the race wins.
Q. Darian has won six of the last 12 Chase races. What is it about Darian that you think he does well?
DENNY HAMLIN: He does a lot of things well. Even though strategy has bitten us a few times this year, I think he’s really good at calling a race. I think he’s amazing with figuring out how to get track position when you’re not running well, and then setting you up for a better finish than what you had scheduled for.
Richmond obviously was disappointing. New Hampshire was disappointing. Those are strategies that kind of took us out of wins, but I just think I have a lot of faith in him and I never really second guess what he has to say, and if I do, then I feel very adamantly about what I think and with the situation.
But beyond that, I think that he just does an amazing job with the team. I have never seen my crew guys, whether it be pit crew or the guys that travel on the road, just be so excited to go to the racetrack every weekend.
Usually everyone dreads it because they are away from their family, it’s the time of the season where everyone is starting to get agitated. But it’s just my guys right now, are just on cloud nine and love being around myself and Darian and I think it’s helped our performance.
Q. When he became available, how did you look at it? Did you think, here is a guy who is going to be hungry and have something to prove and wants to really work hard and go win another championship, or did you worry that maybe he was a little bit — inaudible — by the whole situation and maybe wouldn’t be as driven?
DENNY HAMLIN: I would say I would lean towards the second part of what you said. I was a little more apprehensive that he did just win the championship. I knew that he was mulling offers of not being a crew chief anymore. So that scared me a little bit that, hey, what’s his drive to go out here and win a championship with me. He’s just won the championship. He’s got nothing to prove. He’s won plenty of races with all kinds of different drivers; what about this makes him want to win a championship with me.
And over the lunch conversation that I had with him, he assured me that he felt like I would give him his best chance at winning a championship, and he had something to prove. He wanted to win another championship. He just didn’t want to go out the way things ended.
So he assured me that he has still got probably three to four years left that he wanted to be on the road and be a crew chief, and that his goal was to get a championship with me before he stopped doing that.
Q. Looking forward to Martinsville, another track that you historically have run exceptional on just like New Hampshire. You have two wins at Martinsville. Where do you want to be points-wise heading into Martinsville, one of your better tracks where you can make a statement, have a good run, and add some valuable points, and what is it about Martinsville that makes it such a good track for you? Is it your late-model background or just the way you know how to find ways to make the center of the corner work better than a lot of drivers do at that track?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think Martinsville is definitely a track where you look to win at and capitalize on. Phoenix is the same way. Texas, we won there a couple times. Charlotte, we have run second there a bunch.
So we know our good tracks. It’s just a matter of figuring out the bad tracks and minimizing the bad days. Really the only bad track ahead of us is Dover. Once we get past there, we have the X-factor of Talladega.
We all know that you have to perform well at your good racetracks and those are our good racetracks and we are going to do our best to perform on them. But what makes us so good at those tracks is you just you try to identify what I’m good at; and then obviously the flatter tracks with the tighter corners, that seems to be my knack of driving; or at least what rewards my style of driving.
So I think for each person, it’s different. This is a high-bank, one-mile track we are going to this weekend that rewards the way Jimmie drives. Sometimes you have a knack for it, and for me, it’s been a lot of short-track laps all over the East Coast that’s gotten me into the mind-set and skill set that I have on the shorter tracks and it’s just — that’s where we tend to capitalize on. Luckily we have some good tracks for us in the Chase.
Q. Regarding the flat tracks, how much did racing Southside and racing at Langley, tracks in Virginia, tracks close to home for you growing up, how much did that help you out so that when you go to Martinsville and New Hampshire, even a track like Pocono where it’s flat, how much did that help you where you can be so successful?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it has helped me quite a bit. The sport evolves so quickly that you really have to continue to change the way you drive. These cars are a lot different than our old cars used to be, talking about the Car of Tomorrow.
So you’ve had to change the way you drive and your driving style with every change that NASCAR makes with our cars.
So I’ve had to just continue to evolve and continue to kind of figure out little tricks here and there that I can use to manipulate the car to do things that it isn’t designed to do. So that’s where I feel like I’m strong right now.
Q. With your win this past weekend at New Hampshire, a lot of people are thinking maybe this could be Jimmie versus Denny Chase, much like 2010. I was wondering what do you have to do, especially in the last maybe two or three races this year, to make 2012 go your way this time?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think our performance is as good, if not better, than what it was in 2010. So that part is encouraging. We did have the lead going into the Chase at Dover in 2010. We left there with the lead, I believe.
So that was a big hurdle that we had to get over and it kept us in the game throughout the Chase. And so here we are already a little bit behind, and we are going to Jimmie he’s best racetrack.
As far as making it a two-horse race, I think it’s too early to do that. I think that there’s still a lot of mistakes that can be made on both sides that could allow a lot of guys to perform. The 2 car is obviously very strong right now, so you’re not going to count him out. And really, there’s no one you can eliminate until five races to go.
If you’re over a race out with five to go, and you’ve got to leapfrog probably three or four guys, your chances are very, very slim. These guys are too good. You can’t make mistakes. For me, I think that’s the only thing that will keep us from being in contention once we get to Homestead is our early mistakes, or mechanical failures. If we don’t have those, I think our performance is good enough to carry us to championship contention once we get to Homestead.
Q. I also wanted to ask, there was a point in the summer where you were down after Watkins Glen and Michigan, and all of a sudden it’s like a switch flipped at Bristol and you started winning and dominating just about everywhere. Did anything change around that time for you guys that caused an uptick in your performance?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, there’s probably a five, six-week stretch of racetracks where we typically don’t run well during the summer because it’s not statistically our good racetracks, the Watkins Glens, those tracks that are in there.
You know, we knew starting at Bristol, we were going to go on a little stretch before the Chase started of bringing some of our Chase cars to the track, trying to see how they perform versus the competition.
And obviously we had a couple wins leading into the Chase and so we knew our cars were good enough, and really, I think the tracks just lined up in our favor of getting to some of my best racetracks is why we started winning.
Q. You had spoken about Dover. What makes Dover so special or so unique?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, it’s unlike any racetrack that we go to all year. There is no high-banked one-mile track other than Dover. It’s concrete on top of that, which makes it even more difficult.
If the track was paved, I’m sure I would run a lot better there, because I have such a good feel on the pavement. But it just the concrete surface has kind of thrown me for a loop over the course of my career.
And I think that what we figured out in Bristol that made our car run extremely well there, hopefully will transfer over to Dover this year. We know what we need to do to run well. It’s just a matter of if I get that feeling and feel comfortable inside the race car.
I look forward to it. I think that we have got a lot of good things ahead of us this weekend that we are going to be working on, and you know, for me, it’s just such a unique racetrack that it’s tough to get the feel that you’re looking for at that particular place.
Q. Dover of course is known as the Monster Mile. It used to be one of the fastest tracks but now Michigan International Speedway is the fastest track; with running at Michigan back in August and also in June, will this help you at Dover because of the speed at Michigan?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don’t think so. They are two totally different type of racetracks, and we have a lot of tracks that are actually faster than Dover, pretty much every mile-and-a-half or two-mile racetrack is quicker than the one-mile track at over. It’s not the speed that scares me or anything like that.
It’s really just the feel that I need to work on; it’s getting that feel inside the race car that you’re comfortable passing other cars. And that’s been our Achilles’ heel is not just running well. We have speed at times. It’s just I don’t have the ability to pass the cars like I do at the other tracks.
So we worked on that, we feel like I’ve gotten it better. But really, Michigan is so much different than what Dover is that you really can’t transfer any information.
Q. As far as creating momentum, you’ve done good at this year; can you just feel that momentum building?
DENNY HAMLIN: A little bit. But it’s so week-to-week in our sport. I mean, really what we did last weekend, as soon as we get to Monday, everyone is focused on the weekend coming up.
So those good momentum things that you have going and you’re running well, only goes until the next week starts. As soon as we hit the track for Dover on Friday, New Hampshire is out the window, and it’s how you are running now is what matters.
I feel like we’ve hit our momentum or our stride here in the last month and a half or so, but it’s really been getting the racetracks where I’m particularly strong at than anything. It’s these bumping roads like Dover and Talladega that can upset that momentum that you’ve built on your good racetracks.
Q. Like Jeff Gordon says that he just takes it one race at a time; is that basically you think the best formula?
DENNY HAMLIN: It is. In 2010 I had kind of a number system for each race track in which I wanted to finish at that number, or better, to make sure I put myself in championship contention.
But really, you’ve got to race week-to-week. You’ve got to figure out what it takes to run good at that particular racetrack, and that’s it. That’s all you can really focus on.
So qualifying will be a huge emphasis for us this weekend and we are just going to attack the racetrack as if it’s one of our best.
Q. With it being the Chase and probably on the go all the time what might a driver do to relax or spend time with the family?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, for me, it’s going to play golf or just hanging out with friends. That’s the things that I enjoy the most on my off-time. Usually Monday through Wednesday is our time for ourselves and then Thursday, sometimes you have a sponsor appearance or something like that. But we don’t get a whole lot of time to do whatever we want or get away, I guess you could say.
So our schedule is from February to November, it’s pretty much schedulized and you don’t have a lot of leeway as far as that’s concerned. So for me, I like to do activities outside, play other sports that kind of gets my mind away from racing.
Q. And my next question is, with Talladega being close to a later date next year, do you prefer it earlier in the Chase or you don’t mind either way?
DENNY HAMLIN: I would prefer that it stays earlier in the Chase, you know, because obviously we have got three good racetracks in the Chase for us, in particular. So I just — Talladega is such an X-factor and everybody talks about it, and that’s what NASCAR likes about it. It gives those guys a chance that have fallen in the points to make up points at Talladega because it is such a crapshoot and you just never know what you’re going to get.
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