NASCAR Media Conference
October 20, 2009
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to today's NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference in advance for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. It's the TUMS Fast Relief 500. The sixth event in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Our guest today joining us from Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, is Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota. Denny is currently 11th in the Chase standings and looking to move up at one of his home state tracks. Denny is from Chesterville, Virginia. He has one Martinsville victory in 2008 in the Spring Race at that track. But he's always in contention, and it is definitely one of his favorite tracks.
Denny, you have a great record there. Eight starts, seven Top 10s, five Top 5s and one victory. What is the reason for all that, you think?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think Martinsville is just a racetrack where the driver can make a little bit of a difference if his car's not 100% there. I've got a lot of laps at that racetrack, so the extra experience always helps.
I think some drivers just adapt to certain racetracks quicker than others, and Martinsville has been that for us.
DENISE MALOOF: We'll now go to media questions for today's guest, Denny Hamlin.
Q. I got a two-parter for you. As a graduate of the Joe Gibbs Development Program and a teammate to some other guys, can you speak to the value of development programs in general in JGR specifically, please?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think each one is individual and kind of different, I guess you could say, how the race teams want to use development drivers or programs. Joe Gibbs Racing we have guys running in the East-West Series. We have some running in some Nationwide races for us. Some late model races for us.
What we're trying to do, basically, is we want to have our group of drivers for the future be part of our program and know how things go early in their career and understand before maybe they get to the Cup level, you know, how things work at Joe Gibbs Racing.
I was definitely privileged to be part of Gibbs two to three years before I actually made it to the Nationwide Series on the development side. And, you know, I can't say that it was a huge benefit for me, but it definitely got me involved in the family a little bit more of Joe Gibbs Racing. I think that was a benefit.
So each team, I think, uses it for different reasons, but right now I think Gibbs has one of the best ones going right now.
Q. With you and Joey and now Matt on the near horizon, would you say JGR has figured out how to do it right?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think so. I think they've had most of their development guys actually make it to the cup series eventually. Eric Amarolla was another one who was part of that, and myself, Joey. So, yeah, I mean we've seen the success of the guys that Gibbs has brought up from the lower ranks, and it's shown that they've had talent all the way up to the top.
Q. After the Spring Martinsville Race this year, you suggested that Jimmie Johnson for the contact at the end of the race with battling for the lead. One of the things I asked related to that has anything changed since? Or do you still show that feeling about how to race Johnson as you did after that race?
DENNY HAMLIN: No, obviously, if I'm in the same situation I definitely will have that in the back of my mind and probably will do the same to him. But there's been a couple instances at the end of races, Loudon, New Hampshire, Chicago, where I've nudged Jimmie out of the way with a few laps to go to get a position or something, but it's never really been for a race win.
I'm not going to say that I owe him one or anything like that. But I'm going to race hard to try to get a win, especially in the situation that I'm in right now. I can afford to be a little bit more aggressive. And you know, just do everything I can.
But of course you're going to think if he's in the same situation, second behind me, he'll probably do the same thing again or maybe to someone else. I think any driver -- any driver to be put in the second or first position right now at Martinsville, you're going to have pretty much the same outcome no matter what, whether you owed somebody something or not.
Q. Related to that whether it's you or anyone else, does it matter or should it matter if a driver is, for lack of a better word, paying back someone who is competing for the Chase? So whether it's two Chase guys or one guy, you know, or if it's you and Jimmie again or somebody outside the Chase against you, should it matter that they could impact somebody's Chase chances?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, that's what you hope to build up. You hope to build up the respect for these guys through the first 26 races, so that way those last tens you don't have to worry about being retaliated against by an enemy that you created the first 26 weeks.
So that's why you need to have a clean slate going into the Chase to make sure the guy behind you, even though he's not racing for a championship anymore realizes hey, this guy's cutting me pretty clean breaks through the course of the year, and I'm going to pay him that same respect back.
I know I did when I was a rookie at Martinsville. I had a shot to win that race and I had the same position on Jimmie that he had on me, which was a few laps to go. I backed out. I was a rookie, and you know, even though I was part of the Chase I just felt like I -- he deserved a little bit more respect than me sticking my nose in there.
Q. But for the most part, if it's first or second, doesn't matter Chase or not, you just have to expect the contact and if the second place guy doesn't give it, it's more of a surprise than anything?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I think so. I think the wins mean too much to these race teams. They're going to do everything they can to get it. Right now it seems short tracks are the only place someone can stay close enough to those guys to make a move. So they're going to take every advantage that they can.
Q. Speaking of Jimmie Johnson, with five weeks to go Chase, can you see anyone beating him? Does anyone have a chance in this?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't think so. If he was 150 behind right now I'd still say he would be the guy to beat. They can just step it up when they really need to. They were running lap times at the end of the Charlotte race that were near qualifying times. I just don't know if anyone else has that ability to step up like that. Especially when the competition is supposed to be as equal as it can based by the rule book.
It's just tough to get anything extra out of your race car. But they just have a little bit extra in the tank, it seems like, when they need it.
Q. I was curious how you'll look back on this Chase. You've been Chase before. And you obviously desperately want to win it or challenge for it. How do you look back on this Chase and what is the difference between maybe finishing third or fourth in the points versus finishing ninth or tenth?
DENNY HAMLIN: That was what my comments were geared towards as far as how our point system is. Yeah, it gave me a chance to win the Championship, but the Chase format also could put us in a situation where we end up 11 or 12th in points whereby the old system we could finish in the Top 5 because of what we've accumulated and accomplished for the first 26 races.
So that point of it is disappointing because you look at the stat sheet. It looks terrible when you finish 11 or 12, when you've been the second, third, fourth best car pretty much all year long. It could happen to Tony. He very well could end up in the bottom half of the Chase if he has a bad week, and he's dominated for the first 26 on consistency.
That's the only problem I have with it. Maybe we're not spread out enough. After the season ends and the Chase begins, why are we only separated by ten points, 20 points, you know, when someone like Tony has accumulated a 200-point lead or what have you? That was only my thing.
It really makes a difference between 12th and 3rd in points and we'd obviously have a shot with that. Obviously, the way the 48 is performing, we're not going to be leading the points in this position anywhere, even if we didn't have the two bad weeks that we had.
However, we could at least be hoping, maybe, that they have trouble at Martinsville or Talladega and still could get in and have a shot at this championship if they have one bad week. But it's just not happened. I saw that he hasn't finished out of the top 15 in 31 or 33 Chase races in a row. That's just hard, hard to beat. Hat's off to them for having that reliability and for having that performance.
But for me this year I'm going to look back on it, and obviously be very disappointed. Because we came into the Chase with so much momentum and have performed extremely well on the racetrack. If they gave points for us running up front for most of the time we'd maybe have a shot at this championship. But, unfortunately, had they don't. It's only on finishing position. That's bitten us right at the very end.
Just a couple of mistakes take you out of it. That's what's going to be disappointing to me to be out of it.
Q. If you run well the last five weeks will that ease the disappointment? Or is it one of those things where if you don't win or you have a mistake like you have, doesn't matter how well you do the other nine races?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, my goal was as soon as California happened, I said let's win one more race, at least one more race before the end of the season. That would get us more wins than we have had in any year at three. We're going to run well. We're going to contend for every race win from here on out, I'm absolutely sure of that. But we need to finish them off, get those wins and try to get as high in the points as we can.
What is feasible for us right now, if we do go on a roll like that is the Top 5 in points. We can get back there if we run and we finish just like we've been running. There is no doubt in my mind we'll contend each one of five weeks. We have no weak track in the last five.
Obviously, with the way the front guys are running right now, it's going to be impossible for a championship unless something absolutely freak happens.
Q. How good do you see Jimmie Johnson as a driver? Forget Hendrick, forget Chad's the greatest crew chief in the world and all that. Jimmie was talking about Mark Martin and Montoya at how good they are at following the line and picking up his line. He was trying to throw them off and maybe not do things while they were driving behind him, and he was talking about that. What do you think of Jimmie Johnson as a driver? How much has he gotten for all this? Do you ever study other driver's lines when you're on the racetrack right behind them to see if you can pick up what they're doing?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I don't want what I sound like to be disrespectful to Jimmie, because he is one of the best of our sport for many, many years, and not just in our era, but in past eras. But it's not that Jimmie Johnson's that much better than these drivers out here, especially Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart.
Those guys that have accomplished the highest accomplishments of our sport. He's not that many better than them, he's just got every little thing working for him. He's got a great crew chief in Chad. He's got great race cars. A tremendous amount of horsepower.
We run the same lines. There are a few guys -- I run a little bit different than Jimmie, but there are a few guys that run the same line as him. Our cars don't accelerate off the corner like his. They don't get into the corner like his. And that is what makes the difference. It's those little things that they've gotten figured out is just making him look really, really good.
He obviously does a good job of not making mistakes. And that's where I'd put him above everyone is not making mistakes. Obviously letting his car do a lot of work. Taking it easy on the car in the beginning, working on it, working on it. When he has to push it in the end, he's got the car there for it. He's got the mindset to win those races and that's what makes him the best.
Q. Can you talk at all about how tough it is to be at the number one level in our sport? How hard it is competition-wise just clicking on all cylinders?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, it's tough to not become complacent. And that's what those guys have done. They continue to work no matter whether they're winning races or what. I don't know the internal stuff of the Hendricks Program, or how Chad runs his program.
But I can tell you that they've stayed on top of this sport in all kinds of different cars, in all kinds of different formats because they're not complacent. And they do a really good job of keeping up with everything and keeping their cars on the edge.
That speaks volumes for everyone at Hendrick Race Shop. They have good guys that are not happy about finishing second. They're not saying, well, we ran pretty well this weekend. They're not happy with that unless they win. And even if they do win, they're thinking about how to be faster the next week, as well as everyone is.
So I think that, you know, they've just got it all working right now for them, and they're obviously riding that wave all the way.
Q. Coming from the short track racing and the things that you've done and some of the altercations this year, is it time to bring smash mouth back into racing? Is it time to move guys out of the way and then on pit road be able to express your opinion to another driver? Not physically pushing or punching somebody. But is it time to say this is what I do for a living? This is where I want to be, and this is what I want to do and this is what I have to say to you? Is it time for NASCAR to look the other way and let other guys do what they have to either on the back side or in front of the cameras?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think they've lightened up a little bit. I think NASCAR doesn't mind a few altercations here and there. I've been in those situations obviously in the last couple of months or so. And I've approached NASCAR and said what can I do? What are you going to let me do? If I get really mad, what can I get away with? And they've told me what I can and can't do.
Basically there is too much riding on the line to show too much emotion. You have, obviously, a lot of big-time sponsors in this thing that put your cars on the racetrack and put you in the seat, and they don't want their company looking bad in a negative way. So there is too much riding on it to just, you know, completely show your rear end because something bad happens that weekend.
There is just a much bigger picture to it than what people say. Drivers did what they did back then with all the fights and stuff, because they had no one to answer to except themselves. Their car owner, maybe, but their car owner was as bad as they were. I think it's just the times have changed. There are too many organizations with their names on the line for drivers to really show themselves too much.
Q. But the showing emotion, to show something that, you know, you were running up front and for whatever reason were taken out of a race, you would think a sponsor would enjoy that kind of enthusiasm. No matter how good or how bad it is. Just in my perspective, it would seem to me that a sponsor knowing that a guy is this committed or this focused and was taken out because of whatever reason, would want to see something like that?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah.
Q. And I don't know -- go ahead.
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think there's a little more also to it in the fans' aspect, and the media. The problem with showing he motion is the media will pick you apart and say you're either whining or something like that.
So you're not going to make everybody happy, and next thing you know the media portrays you as a bad person. And the media doesn't appraise someone showing emotion, especially if it's negative toward another driver nowadays. Now you're alienating your fans and everyone else because you have the media saying that this guy's whining about this one or that and other the other. They don't say hey, we like this or that, even though NASCAR may like it.
It's just there is so much. The fans are the other half of the reason why we have the things that we have and have a job. So you don't want to totally alienate them.
Q. Your thoughts on Talladega and some of the safety measures where they've raised the fence another eight feet?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, that's been good. Obviously it always takes something bad to happen to make our sport a little bit better. But that's how we learn. It seems like NASCAR has really taken the lead initiative if something bad does happen, they're the first ones to step in and say, all right, how are we going to improve this for the future?
They're trying to reduce the restrictor plates of the trying to reduce the speed of the cars. I don't know if that's the answer, but if it isn't we at least have higher catch fences to keep us out of the stands.
So I definitely think that that's an improvement. With this car, we're in a box, unfortunately. And we've built all these race cars. They're built to be close to one another. With a restrictor plate on them, you're not going to get them away from one another. I think we're doing all we can with the car we have.
Q. You mentioned regretting the Chase results in a way. But the Chase experience, how much does that carry over to the next season? And how do you compare this Chase experience to the first Chase that you made when you were a bit of a surprise contender that year?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I think our first Chase was similar to what Juan's is this year. They were just happy to get in. Once they got in, it was a no-pressure situation for them. Next thing you know they found themselves in a championship position. But, of course, this week was a step back for them as well as Charlotte was for myself in my rookie year. But same mentality, pretty much.
It seems the less experience that you have, you're almost just happy to be there and take whatever it gives you. It's a no-pressure situation. Next thing you know you run a little bit better.
For me, I feel like I know what it takes to win a championship. Obviously, making the mistake last week was the first one in a while. We just didn't run that well last year in the choice, and we finished about where we should have finished. But I compare it to like '07 where we made a mistake mechanically the first Cup of races. And next thing you know I was trying to make it up on the racetrack as a driver I made a couple mistakes and it was a disastrous Chase for us and we finished 12th.
This year is the best we've been as far as on--track performance and having a chance at the championship. But, you know, for whatever reason we just can't keep it together. Whether it's the car or whatever. We're trying. We're doing everything we can to make sure every nut ask bolt is tight on the car. Engines are reliable and all things like that. But it just seems for some reason something mechanically goes wrong each Chase for us.
You know, it's hard to overcome that especially when you have a guy that's won three of the five Chase races. You're pretty much racing for second at that point.
Q. What is Joe Gibbs Racing doing to be in a position next year to outrun the 48 and the Hendrick cars? Do you guys need to spend more money on research and development? Is that the answer?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't know. I think we need to just sit down again just like we did at the beginning of the season. All of us need to sit down, Michael and Joey, and Joey's going to have a little more input this time, and we need to sit down and talk about the things that we need to work on, and where those guys are beating us. Look through video and find out where they're beating us.
Obviously with the technology we have through Dartfish, that can learn us a lot. We've got to figure it out. And I definitely know where I'm getting beat, but that doesn't always mean you can just necessarily fix that problem. It's a long process to try to find 5 horsepower, or something of that nature, or make your bodies just a little bit better or your chassis a little bit better. That's a long process. It takes a lot of testing to do that. With the testing restrictions that we do have, and not only that, but the time restrictions that we have, we just don't have a lot of time to R and D.
You know, it's going to be a timely process. But right now we are running as competitive through the first half of the race. The next quarter of the race we're pretty good. The next thing you know, the last 20 laps those guys can just step it up, it seems like. This week would have been interesting to see if I would have been able to run the speeds that they did in the end. But, you know, we've just got to sit down and figure it out.
Obviously, no one around here is going to be happy with the position we are in points-wise, and Kyle not making the Chase. So this is going to be a tough off-season around here. There is going to be a lot of hard working done. We're just going to have to plug away at it. Gibbs has done a good job of providing good race cars and cars that can compete for wins through the course of this year. That's all I can ask for. The only thing I can ask for is a little bit more reliability.
DENISE MALOOF: Denny, thank you very much for your time this afternoon. We appreciate it. Good best of luck this weekend at Martinsville.
DENNY HAMLIN: Thank you.
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