Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, missed four races early on during the 2013 season because of a back injury suffered during an in-race incident. Upon returning, Hamlin struggled mightily and even suffered through another injury, this one to the hand. To say 2013 was a bad year for Hamlin, professionally, would be an understatement. He did end the season on a good note, though, finally making his way to victory lane in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But with 2014 soon approaching, Hamlin’s healthy and looking to turn things around. During the Sprint Media Tour in Charlotte in late January, Hamlin talked about his difficult 2013 and how he’s been preparing to bounce back this upcoming season, among other things. Here’s what he had to say:
Are driver controversies good for NASCAR?
“Controversies are a big part of what we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s NASCAR or any other sport. It’s based off of rivalries. It’s the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning. It’s those things – the Jeff Gordon’s and the Dale Earnhardt’s. Those two clash. So, it’s always part of sports is having a rivalry. That’s what makes exciting events, so I think it’s important for our sport and they’re always going to rear their head because we’re not all going to get along on the race track at the same time.”
How is your health going into this season?
“It’s really good. It’s better than it’s been since I really can remember. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, but I can assure you I’ve put in my hours. The off-season has been over roughly 60 days and I’ve put over 140-some hours in the gym. I’ve done everything I can to do my part to make sure we’re back in contention this year. There’s nothing lingering — everything is good. I’ve gotten scanned and everything looks great. It’s all in the past for me and obviously 2013 is going to be a year that will be forgotten as soon as we get to the race track at Daytona.”
Were you able to spend more time in the gym during the off-season?
“Once we found these injection treatments with about a month to go in the season it bought me time in the gym where before I was hurting so bad that even when I went I just couldn’t do any of the exercises or rehab to get stronger because I was in just tremendous pain. Now that we’ve got these injections it’s just bought me so much — it’s numbed me up for so long now that it’s bought me the time to get strong and now I’ve weaned off of them and I’m better and feel physically better than I have probably ever as far as my back is concerned in my career. I think the injections was the key to buying me enough time to get into the gym and doing the work that I need to do.”
What type of injections were you receiving?
“It’s the same injections really Tony Romo got for his back. It’s Lidocaine and different anti-inflammatory’s and numbing stuff and things like that. When I heard about Tony Romo getting an injection I said, ‘Well that will definitely help him, but I don’t know how bad his back is but it ain’t going to make him play football. That’s for sure.’ It’s something that I actually had done two years ago — Daytona — I think I missed the entire weekend other than the race because of back problems. I went and I got an injection and it got me through the weekend. The ones I’ve had lately have lasted about a month and a half to two months and I’m kind of due for one right now, but I’m strong enough now to where I really don’t need it so everything is good on that side.”
Did you have to change your workout routine after the back injury?
“No. More so focusing on what I need to get stronger to help support some of the pain that I had. I think a lot of it is pain management and the other is fixing what’s wrong, and I think that we’ve done that. Really, like I said, it’s just taken a lot of commitment from my side to make sure I’m doing the things that I need to do to not be the weak link on our team this year.”
What types of things do you work on in the gym?
“Pilates has been my best friend. I would say probably about two months ago — I just designated my entire off-season to not taking any trips, not going anywhere on vacation and just anything that I did would take me out of the gym so I’ve just stayed at home and went to the gym every day for breakfast and lunch and dinner. I do play basketball now. I feel great afterward, so everything has been great. It doesn’t mean I won’t turn an ankle here or there, but it keeps me — it’s what excites me now is putting in the work to be physically better.”
Do you have a better appreciation for racing after your back injury last year?
“When you have the opportunity to sit back and watch a few races and not be a part of it when you know you’re able to mentally, it makes it tough to go out there and watch an event and not be a part of it when you’re injured. It’s something that no driver wants to have to go through, but for me I think it was kind of a game-changer in my outlook and attitude towards being a Sprint Cup driver and obviously it made me appreciate in my own mind what I get to do every week. You’ll probably find me griping a little bit less now that this happened. You just learn to appreciate the job you had and what it took to get here and you hope that you never have to go through that again. It’s in the past and just going to have to move on.”
Are you confident you can get back to contending for a championship this year?
“Of course there would be a lot of questions about — if we ended the year on how we ran most of the year — there would be a lot of questions about whether we could get back that old form, but obviously winning at Homestead was a great step. We were competitive the few races before Homestead as well, and then the testing I’ve done here in the off-season I feel like has really shown that we’re kind of back to the speed that we had before. I think that all that has compounded into a lot of confidence for us this year. It’s going to be a redemption year. It’s going to be a year that we’ve got to prove ourselves that we’re back. I’ve got to prove to myself that I can be back to where I was and it’s going to take a lot of work to do it.”
Do you like the new qualifying format?
“I think the knockout qualifying is going to be a good thing. Definitely if you didn’t have that, you would see track records break all over the series all over again. Just through the testing we’ve seen so far, the cars are at least a half-a-second faster than the cars were last year, and last year’s cars were record-breaking fast. I think whether you happen to use the same set of tires each one, there’s going to be strategy played. I think there could possibly be some gamesmanship on making sure a guy doesn’t have a good lap if there’s things like that going on. It’s going to be tough because you only have a certain amount of time to get one of those fast laps and everyone is going to be fighting to get on the race track as soon as they can because the race track is better cold. I think it’s going to be a game-changer, for sure, but it’s going to be exciting for the fans.”
Is there any team with better talent than Joe Gibbs Racing?
“Not that I know of. There’s a lot of teams with great talent, but I’ve been able to race with a few guys and I’m pretty sure I have my work cut out for me every single weekend not to be the bottom of the list, and everyone does. Matt (Kenseth) always makes jokes and texts with us about who’s last out of the three of us each week, whether it be in qualifying or the race or whatever, and it’s tough because none of us want to be on the bottom. But, hey if you’re third out of us three, than you’re in a pretty good group. A lot of times the last-place guy is fifth or sixth, so it’s not too bad on the race track. They make me better, I can tell you for sure. When Kyle (Busch) came in 2008 it took me from being a single one, two win guy a year to five or six that we had a few years in a row. And Matt, although I didn’t get the opportunity to really show what I was capable of last year, I knew learning from him once again is going to raise my game even higher in 2014.”
How did you get through last year with all of the challenges you faced?
“I had a daughter. That helped a lot. One thing is for sure is as crappy as my weekends were week in and week out it lasted as long as the plane ride home. That helped a ton and really those two events of having a daughter and having to sit out a few races made me probably change my outlook more than anything has in the eight years that I’ve been in the Cup Series on getting through those bad weeks and getting to the good ones and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Those two things have changed the way I think about my job and what I have to do and hopefully it’s all for the good and shows up in 2014.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR