1-on-1 with NASCAR's Denny Hamlin: Coca-Cola 600 win is his career's 'highest priority'

Alex Andrejev, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Auto Racing

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin has already won two of NASCAR's six completed races this season, but the consecutive Daytona 500 winner is not yet satisfied. He wants to take the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday more than anything.

"It's a race that's the highest priority for me to win in my career," Hamlin told The Charlotte Observer.

Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., won last year's Coca-Cola 600, but the No. 11 driver has never won the crown jewel event himself despite his 39 Cup Series wins.

The morning after Hamlin secured a victory at Wednesday night's Darlington race, which ended early due to rain, he hopped on a Zoom call with The Charlotte Observer to discuss his creative 'face' face mask, his thoughts on the Kyle Busch-Chase Elliott incident and the texts he receives from Michael Jordan.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Alex Andrejev: I've got to ask about the mask. How did you come up with the idea? Was that your face that was actually printed on it?

Denny Hamlin: It was. We probably had to pretty it up a little bit because this (motioning to face) is a mess. You never get to see anyone's facial expression. I wanted my mask to look like my face so it looks like I don't have a mask on. Masks look awkward at times. (My team) got it done in a very short amount of time, but yeah, it worked. It was funny. I remember walking down pit lane before the race and having it on, and seeing all the crew guys kind of nudging each other and laughing, so I knew it was a hit. Luckily after the race, I kept in my car to be ready to head back to the bus -- win, lose or draw -- and it just so happens I won the race, so I was happy. The face worked.

AA: Did you show your kids before the race?

DH: No, they didn't see it. I got it literally a couple hours before I had to drive down to Darlington, so they didn't see it until it was on TV.

AA: What's been the weirdest or most unexpected thing (at the track) with the new protocols in place for coronavirus?

DH: The on-track product has been the same. I think inside the race car for those two or three hours, I haven't noticed any differences. The biggest thing for me is the before and the after. It's just the silence. There are no people. You don't feel the energy. The energy comes from within for me to try to go out there and perform. So as soon as I crank the car up, it's game on. NASCAR has done a good job of showcasing what we've got on TV and the other stuff people don't see when they're not at the racetrack has not been a big deal, so (it's) pretty awesome the way it turned out.

AA: After Kevin Harvick won the first race back, he said the (celebration) felt pretty awkward afterward, and (Wednesday's) race ended abruptly. Was there anything like that? Did you even go to Victory Lane?

DH: No, we didn't. Everything was different, and I knew it was different from when I got out of my race car after Sunday's race. I finished fifth, Harvick wins. He's out on the front stretch, pulls around, comes to pit road, and we walked back to the motorhome lot talking. I'm like, 'You don't have anything to do?' And he's like, 'No, they just said to go back to my bus and do some Zoom calls.' So that's kinda how it's all been, and I'm getting a taste of it now. Certainly it's been a change, but I think like anything, we're creatures of habit and this is something that as we do it a little bit more over the next few weeks, it should become second nature.

AA: How do you feel about the schedule having so many races packed into such a short amount of time?

DH: I like it personally. We're making up some dates and races that we were going to have to cancel otherwise. With no other major sports on TV right now, it's an opportunity for us to kind of showcase our sport in front of a bigger audience and kind of own the week per se. If you love racing, you're getting a race nearly every day or every other day here for the next few weeks, so you should love it. And we're seeing that more and more people that have never tuned in to NASCAR before are tuning in, so we're excited. Obviously, we've got a big race ahead of us this weekend in the Coke 600. It's a race that's the highest priority for me to win in my career. (My sponsor) FedEx is promoting $1 million in grants to small businesses. This is a big week for us so we want to go out there and check that one off the resume.

AA: In terms of viewership, NASCAR's had a bigger audience than Michael Jordan in "The Last Dance." I saw on Twitter that you had a conversation with him after the race. What'd he say?

DH: He texts me all the time congratulating me when I win a race or telling me I need to do better when I need to do better. He is that motivator for sure. I told him that meant a lot to me watching "The Last Dance" and seeing the story with him and his father. I didn't know a whole lot about his dad, but through my conversations with him when we'd go out and play golf or whatever, I asked him, 'Where'd your passion come from for racing?' He said (his) dad used to take (him) to Darlington every year to the races, and he said that he watched the cars go around and felt the engines roaring, and that just fueled his passion for racing, and he's loved it ever since.


AA: Did you talk after (Wednesday's) race?

DH: Yeah, what we were talking about was how awesome it was to win at the track that his dad used to take him to.

AA: Did he have any comments on your mask?

DH: No, the playful stuff. ... He's not about playing. He's about business.

AA: Sounds right. (Wednesday) you mentioned that you hadn't seen what happened behind you between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. Have you watched the race film since then and what are your thoughts on the incident?

DH: Not a whole lot of thoughts other than things worked out really nice for us. We were in a good position. We made a ton of time up on that last long green flag run. We got all the way to the second and (I) was kind of running Chase down there before the caution came out, so I liked our chances to win the race regardless. But that caution was actually untimely for us even though it had four cars on the lead lap. We wanted to come in and take our last set of tires and be at a tire advantage thinking that the race could go green or the rain was coming and why leave tires in the pits? So it made our bed and then we had to stay in it because another caution came right back out and we were out of tires anyway other than the two-lap tires that we were going to put back on at the end of the race if we needed them. We just hadn't had time to glue them up. There just wasn't enough time between the cautions. I remember being told on the radio, "You're not gonna like this, but basically, you need you to stay out." I liked the call, personally. I thought it was the right call. I don't know if I would have held those guys off, but certainly I thought our car was its best at the very end.

AA: Alan (Gustafson) said afterward that he thought Chase could have won since you were running on old tires.

DH: Well, the rain was coming, right? We knew the rain was coming and when you look at the time line of the caution coming out for Chase's wreck, and then the rain started falling I think on our second caution lap, so we were only going to run probably four or five more laps before the race was over anyway. (He had) dirty air and the leader has such an advantage there. I liked our chances. I don't know because Chase is really fast on the short run and he was right there on our bumper, but I give myself that chance. I like my chances.

AA: Kyle said he misjudged the timing and other drivers, including you, have said that's very possible on that track. But how do you think that's going to play out between the two of them going forward? Do you think there's still going to be some tension there?

DH: It just depends on how much Chase is influenced by either the media or his team to retaliate or drive Kyle hard or whatever. Kyle's mistake was obviously a mistake, so in my opinion, I don't think retaliating is necessary. Someone made a mistake. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to run into someone causing them to wreck and you don't want to get retaliated against, so it's just part of racing and I think everyone understands that and I think both drivers are very fair.

AA: Heading into this weekend, what do you think is going to keep JGR rolling and how is the team preparing to keep that momentum going into the weekend?

DH: We were really strong at the Coke 600 last year, and I don't know that our cars are as strong right now, in the course of this season, compared to where we were last year when we were kind of firing off and winning everything. But I definitely think that we've got a great chance. Like I said, it's the highest priority race for me to win for my personal accomplishments. It's the next biggest race to the Daytona 500, in my opinion, so it's one that we've geared up for, prepared for, and we don't know what's going to happen without practice. But it's a race of, 'How prepared can you be right from the get-go?' I like our team's chances on that.

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