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Denny Hamlin enters this year’s NASCAR Playoffs in the sixth position as he chases an ever-elusive Cup series championship, having finished second once and third three times in the final standings in his career. This year, he comes in as one of the chasers. Hamlin holds just 13 points, which is only four more than the 12th spot where the first cut will be made after the first three races of the playoffs.
For Hamlin, that means a different approach from years where he’s entered as a points leader, and with the first race at a Darlington for the Cook Out Southern 500 (Sunday, Sept. 4, 4:00 p.m. ET on NBC), he’s feeling confident he can get off to a strong start given it’s a track he’s won at four times in 20 appearances with 15 top-10s. While the playoffs now take center stage for Hamlin, he’s also still got his own team, 23XI Racing, where he’s partnered with Michael Jordan for a two-car Cup series team, to worry about as well.
Prior to heading off to Darlington for the race weekend, we got a chance to talk with Denny about balancing life as a driver and team owner, his approach to this year’s playoffs being different, shaking off last week’s wreck at Daytona, adapting to a new car, and what it’s like co-owning a team with MJ.
First off, how are you feeling? I know you’re not doing the Xfinity race this weekend because you were dealing with some soreness. How are you feeling come off the wreck on Sunday?
Yeah, I think that I wanted to make sure I was 100 percent for Sunday, and that’s hard to do even when you’re healthy. It’s hard to do because the 500-mile race in the Southern 500 is really, really hard on your body. I’ve run the double there for the last couple of years, and I know that it’s taken a little bit out of me in that race, so it just makes sense to kind of sit this one out and focus, especially with our 11 team needing to perform really well at all the playoff tracks. We don’t have a big point cushion this year. We need to focus 100 percent on Sunday.
How does your body respond differently now to those hard hits then maybe 10-15 years ago? Have you learned kind of to listen to your body as you’ve gotten older?
Yeah, I mean, typically as you get older all the hits that didn’t bother you when you’re 25 do when you’re 40. All those things are quite a bit different. But just going off of a big car change from generation six to this one, there’s a significant change. So you just kind of listen to your body and make sure — that’s what Kurt Busch is doing and he says he’s not ready — and so you have to listen to your body and the older you get the more you have to do that.
With regards to the new car, I mean, from where you guys started the season in the 11 car to where you are now, that obviously wasn’t the ideal first few races. How happy are you with the way you guys have progressed and your comfort level as a team going into the playoffs with this car?
Well, there’s probably not going to be as many unknowns as what we were talking about early in the season. A lot of these racetracks we’re going to, we went to in the spring, so we’ll probably have a better understanding of how our performance is going to be that given weekend. So you know, at Kansas, the mile and a half, we’re probably going to perform really well there. The shorter tracks like the Roval, probably won’t perform as well. So it’s about how can we get the most out of our weekend even when we don’t have a fast car.
And then for you as as a driver, what have been the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make in the new car?
As a driver, you know, getting used to the braking zones is quite a bit different in this car, the deceleration of it, less power. All those things play a role in how you attack a certain race track and how you get speed out of this car on a particular race track. So I think it was important for me to kind of continue to evolve my game and how I have my certain disciplines at race tracks. I’ve had to evolve it with this race car because it is totally different.
You’ve had a lot of success in your career at Darlington. Even though it is a new car and like you said you’re making adjustments, is it nice starting the playoffs at the track that you’re at least comfortable in and know you’ve had a lot of success?
Yeah, it is. I mean, Darlington has always been a great race track for myself personally. Even in the spring it was really good until we got caught up in a wreck. But yeah, I’m comfortable going there. I think that it’s you know, for a lot of guys it’s a struggle track. I would hate to go to Charlotte Roval I guess the first race of the playoffs. You know, this is certainly one that’s kind of in our wheelhouse where we think that we can go out there, win, punch our ticket, and move on.
And then from a team ownership side, you’re now in your second year with that. What’s been the biggest surprise to you that maybe you weren’t expecting about being a team owner and the biggest learning curve for you in that regard?
The biggest thing is just being hands on with all the different departments that it takes to make a race team go. Certainly as a driver my job is competition of the 11 car, make sure I execute when they build me a fast car, how do I go win with it on the race track? So, I play a very small role in the performance of that 11 car. When you have a team, there’s so many different aspects that makes a car go — when you have your hands in ’em, there’s more gratification when it does run well.
So, I just learned to understand the business of it, understand what it takes to make a competitive team go. The struggles that it comes with. Every single week you’re putting out a different fire that didn’t see coming, so you just never know. And most people that run businesses understand that. It’s doesn’t just open itself and run itself every day, and you punch out at the end of the clock. So just understanding that and really kind of getting a taste of it over the last year and a half has been fun.
And then balancing that responsibility with with driving and kind of how have you learned to be able to put one hat on and take one hat off, and also when you have to wear both sometimes?
Yeah, sometimes you have to wear both, but you know on the weekends I really trying to focus on the FedEx hat. That’s the most important one to me. So I know that as long as I keep winning races in my number 11 FedEx car, that keeps me relevant as a car owner to 23XI. So that’s my first job. I know that my number one goal when I came into this sport was to win a championship. That goal is just 10 weeks away. And that’s on the driver’s side. So that’s where it kind of shift my focus really for these last few months is that, what can I do to achieve the goal that’s right here in front of me.
You’ve obviously known Michael Jordan for a long time being the Jordan athlete, but what is it been like partnering with him on this? And seeing that love of motorsports that that he has and also seeing that competitive spirit kind of firsthand.
Yeah, he’s race fan first, which is why he came into this sport to begin with is that he’s been a motorsports fan for a long time. But you know, he loves it and he loves being a part of it and he loves the growing part of it. What it takes to build a championship organization. And luckily for me, he’s kind of letting me have the reins of that to identify the talent that we need to hire and what infrastructure we need to build to build that out. So it’s been a great partnership. We’ve had and he’s got to reap the benefits of being able to come to the races and watch those cars go around the race track.
Shifting back to you in the 11 for the playoffs, this is your 15th playoffs appearance. From from when you started doing this to now, what have you learned about how to approach this 10-race season now it becomes a little bit more condensed and, kind of like you said, making sure you’re getting the most out of every week? Is that the biggest approach difference, maybe not saying I’m going to try to win every week?
Yeah, listen, I think that each year is a little bit different. I’ve had 40-plus playoff points some years and this year, I only have 13. So you have to honestly look at that and approach the first couple rounds differently than what I have in the past. So I have to look at points, we have to look at getting stage points, more so than what we had in years past. So you know, it’s going to be a stage by stage, race by race basis on how we approach the playoffs. I think just the tone gets set on qualifying this weekend. That’s really going to be a big indicator of whether you’re going to get stage points in the first stage or not. If we do, we’re going to feel pretty good about optimizing our strategy towards winning the race of the end versus getting second stage points. So, it’s always evolving, but this year is just a little different because we really need to get more points.
Yeah, and as a driver, the introduction of the stage points a few years ago, how does that change the calculus and how have you adapted? Because that wasn’t a thing early in your career where you ever had to think about was different sections of the race, but how do you pace yourself differently now?
Yeah, it’s different. I mean, I like it because it rewards you if you do get taken out with five laps go, you get rewarded for your performance during the course of the race. So I really liked that quite a bit. I’m happy that we added the stages in NASCAR, but certainly, there’s a lot of points to be gotten in any given race and if you miss out on ’em, you can finish 10th, but no stage point and lose out to someone who finished 28th, who went out there and won the first couple of stages. So you really have to perform the entire race which changes the dynamic for sure.