Denny Hamlin spoke to this author on the eve of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. “My life is chaos. I’m just looking at my daily routine and all the things I have to do and I know a big story with a lot of people over the past year has been, ‘Well how are you going to manage that balance of being an owner and your work than to do? a driver?’ You know, all of that made me focus even more.”
True to his words, July was a wild and chaotic month for Hamlin. Indeed, last weekend’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway was a wild affair on many levels for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 FedEx-Toyota when he was involved in a racing accident with enduring rival Ross Chastain. As if that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t long after he appeared with his 49.5½ inches long and .012 inches thick on the lower skirt of his race car.
Consider the recent announcement that Hamlin’s 23XI Racing team has signed sensational young driver Tyler Reddick for the 2024 Cup season, and it’s easy to see that the 18-year-old NASCAR veteran driver was a man in the middle of it all.
Q: Recently you talked about a match being lit under the 23XI Racing Team. Do you feel like this?
DENNY HAMLIN: I do. I really feel like these guys are starting to run well and be consistent, which is really all I was hoping for from the start. I wanted us to show our ability to get better and I believe they are doing that. Bubba and Kurt drove to the front. That was the downside I think this team had (in the past) – when they’ve been hit by adversity, they haven’t always bounced back that well. But in the past few weeks the team has picked up on that and that has been their MO.
Q: You mentioned that you think Toyota still has some work to do when it comes to sprint and road racing. TRUE?
DH: Yeah, that’s somewhere the Toyotas really had to get better and I think the performance that we put on in New Hampshire was really a good performance for our teams because that’s a track that we do with Phoenix equate where we race for a championship. We have to run well on such routes. I’d say we were light years better in New Hampshire than in Phoenix, which is another one mile distance, so yeah, overall I feel like we’re pretty good; that we are starting to familiarize ourselves with the short distances. Now the street rates are still a question mark. We need to get better at that, but in general it looks like the Toyotas in general are all starting to make their move.
Q: Right after I saw you shut down the last few laps to win Pocono, I took my daughter to the beach to surf. When we got home I found out that the race win was taken away from you. It’s been almost 60 years since NASCAR did that…
DH: They’re really trying to get a foothold on this new car and make sure we don’t get involved in areas where we shouldn’t get involved. A lot of that has to do with the matter at hand. They try to help us help ourselves and don’t spend ridiculous money on these cars for development. That way we can turn it into a profitable business. What happened was simply a mix-up with our team. When they peeled back the foil on the car, my crew chief in particular was like, “Um, what’s that? I’ve never seen that before.’ So it was definitely a shock for us. I think, generally speaking, if this had been any different year than this year with this new car, you would never have heard of it. It would have been so small NASCAR would have said, ‘Just don’t bring that back.’ It’s always been like that.
Q: So NASCAR used the infraction to set an example for everyone else?
Q: You and Ross Chastain re-entered Pocono with 18 laps to go. Will you be able to put all this behind you?
DH: (Break). I mean we’ll see. I hate giving a definitive answer there. Obviously, I know I definitely feel like I’ve been wronged about him on a number of occasions. Surely that one in Pocono was some kind of racing accident where I just didn’t give him space. I didn’t meet him, I just didn’t leave him anywhere (Laugh). I left him with no options. I don’t know… We’re just going to play by ear from this point on. It doesn’t matter who it is or what it is – to me it’s just the principle of it, you know? I’m a little upset that I lost the regular season title to Kyle Larson last year because we were knocked out by Chase Briscoe in the Indy road race. Then Alex Bowman caught us in Martinsville with five laps to go when we should have won the race. This result could have taken us to the Final 4. A lot has been brewed about it, which has fueled my frustration. All this raw stuff just came along.
Q: You’re eighth in NASCAR Cup Series points and in playoff playoffs on solid ground. How do you feel about your place as we approach the month of August?
DH: I feel pretty good about it. I mean obviously it was quite a big round of playoff points for us where instead of getting five points we gave them to a competitor and we don’t like that at all. But yeah we’re going strong and my pit crew is starting to really pick up steam so I’m definitely liking where I’m at.
Q: And you guys will Tyler Reddick get into a 23XI racer in 2024?
DH: Yeah, we’re super excited and excited for Tyler. There are franchise drivers that come along every few decades and this is one of them. I’m very, very confident about that. If you ask his peers, and you can ask Kyle Larson, and you can ask anybody that’s going against him, and they’ll be like, ‘Man, he’s really, really, really good.’ I know I’ve gotten texts from a lot of other car owners saying, ‘Damn, you really grabbed one with that guy!’ I am very happy. And I’m not only happy to have him, but also that he has chosen us at 23XI Racing. That really gives me a lot of confidence that he has in our future and where we’re going.
I mean, we’re in a building process. I said it would be five years before we would fight for a championship and we are in year 1.5 right now. We’re on track to surpass that timeline, so I think we just have to keep the horse on track. I really believe that in the very near future we will be a team winning multiple races and fighting for the championship.
Q: And does Kurt Busch do everything you need him to do?
DH: That’s him. I mean, Kurt was a rock star to us. He was just so good at doing everything we asked him to do and obviously we’re just trying to get him healthy at this point. He suffered some bumps and lumps here earlier in the season which have exacerbated some of those issues. Our main focus is to make him as healthy as possible. We want to make him healthy because he is the anchor that holds this team together.
Q: How are you looking for the street race at Brickyard this weekend?
DH: I think we need to set modest targets for the road circuits this year. Sonoma was a disaster to say the least. We were all very bad then. At Road America, we all stepped forward. I thought we had two or three cars good enough to finish in the top 15. A couple of them were on the fringes of the top 10. Now we have to lower the bar a bit and say, ‘Okay, now we can get two or three cars in the top 10. It takes a process to get on all of that to get good at these circuits. While we want to go out there and win, and stuff like that is the goal in unloading is to be honest with ourselves and say, “If we get in the top 10, we’ve made progress.”