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September 12, 2006

Denny Hamlin

DENISE MALOOF: Welcome to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series teleconference. First our usual bit of housekeeping. This week's Nextel Wake-Up Call begins at 10:30 a.m. Friday in the New Hampshire International Speedway infield media center. The guest is Jeff Burton.
Denny Hamlin joins us today after earning a spot in the 2006 Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup last Saturday night at Richmond. He's fifth in the series standings and competing in his first Chase. He's also the first Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year candidate for qualify for the Chase. He's the second first-year driver to do so following Carl Edwards's accomplishments last year.
Denny, what is the most amazing thought that's occurred to you since last Saturday night?
DENNY HAMLIN: The biggest thing was just making sure we eliminated problems. Unfortunately we had those problems. We were still able to come through it with a solid top 15 finish. You know, doing that on seven cylinders was a huge accomplishment for our team. It was good enough to get us in.
DENISE MALOOF: Sounds good. Let's go straight to some questions for you.

Q. Obviously the bad news for you is your senior teammate is not in the Chase. Is the good news maybe for you that with Tony not being under such pressure, working on his own effort in the Chase, might that free him up a little bit to do more to help you through this Chase?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it probably will. I mean, I think with one single car with Gibbs Racing being in it, whether it was me, Tony or anything, know we can really push to get that car a championship. You know, I hate it for Tony. I really wish he was in it. I feel like there would be a lot of opportunities for us to help each other throughout the thing. I think we still are. He's still going to be a guy that I'm going to look to to try to help me through this because I really don't know what it's going to take to win the championship. He knows.
That part of it's bad. But the other aspect is we get to try to concentrate on him getting 11th and me possibly going for the championship.

Q. You said six or eight weeks ago that you do sometimes allow yourself to think of the idea of becoming the first guy ever to be Rookie-of-the-Year, overall champion in the same year. Now that you're in, you got this whole team focused on your effort, does that become a goal that's just sort of right there, and how overwhelming is that thought to you at this point?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's really overwhelming. It's definitely going to be a task to do it. I mean, I think we're running well enough. If things go well, if things go the way they have, we're going to need to step it up a little bit to be championship contenders.
Running top 10 consistently, that will come close to doing it, but I think you're going to need more top fives and possibly a win or two in there.
I think our team is very capable of doing it. There's a lot of situations where I felt like we could have finished better, even though we did get top tens.
You know, it's going to take a great effort. I don't think this year you're going to be able to have that Mulligan that you've had in the past.

Q. Being a rookie, you've had a great season, earned your way into the Chase, is it still kind of a humbling experience?
DENNY HAMLIN: It really is. I mean, to me I try to stay as humble as I can. I am still the rookie of all these guys I'm racing around. I'm racing against guys that have been doing this for years and know what it's all about.
For me, you know, it's going to be a learning experience for sure. I don't think being a rookie is going to be that big of a disadvantage. But I think some of the guys that have been through this before have an edge on us.

Q. With you and other young drivers, other first-timers in the Chase, do you think the power structure might be making a bit of a shift in NASCAR?
DENNY HAMLIN: I'm kind of confused on what you mean there.

Q. All the new guys in the Chase this year, is it something that we might expect year after year with new guys being in there?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it's more you're getting more cars that are capable of running in the top 10. You know, it was really spread out. I think Ryan Newman was 700 points or so behind, somewhere in that number, in 10th. I just think there's 15 teams that run top 10 every single week. I mean, in the top 15 every week. Sometimes it's a different order. Seems like week in, week out, when it's 50 laps to go, I'm looking around, it's the same guys that I'm racing for in points that are in the top 10. They're so solid.
I think it's taken more points to make this Chase than it ever has in the past. It's just a testament that there's going to be more and more teams that are capable of winning week in, week out.

Q. You joined this team at about this time last year. The team was really as low as you could go, struggling to get into the top 35 in points. Now you're racing for the championship. What has it been over these last 36 races or so that you've been with this team that it's turned them from sort of adrift into the championship-caliber team they are now?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, I think they've always had the potential for that. But I think morale was low more than anything. I think all these guys are more than capable of getting the job done. Last year was such a tough year for them, they didn't get to enjoy it. I think when they didn't enjoy going to the racetrack as much, production isn't as high. I think last year when I came into this team, it was like amazing how well the team was put together through everyone. The communication was great between everyone. They just weren't happy to be at the racetrack.
This year that's been the case. We've enjoyed hanging out with each other. We've enjoyed going to the racetrack, being competitive. I think that's what has made them from the team they were to the team they are now.

Q. Did the success you had later in the year sort of help build the confidence and get the momentum going that's carried on through this season?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it has. I think that was very pivotal for us to run those last seven races. That was a huge deal, especially in the position that we're at now to where we're going to run for the championship the last 10 races. Those last seven are the ones that I ran. That's going to be a big key as far as helping us. It was a great confidence booster. It showed right there in the shootout, by winning that race, that kind of set the tone for the entire year that, hey, we're going to be tough competitors. Last year definitely helped with that kick start.

Q. What was your biggest surprise about your first season?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, definitely being able to go to Pocono and dominate those two races like we did is probably the biggest surprise for me. I would have never guessed we would be able to accomplish that, especially now being there before.
You know, that and the shootout both are really high on the list of things, accomplishments, that I really cherish. I think they have equal importance. We really didn't expect to go out and be able to be contenders like we are this soon in my career. To do that is just a good sign of things to come.

Q. In handicapping the Chase, who do you figure are the drivers you have to beat?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think Matt is probably the guy coming in with the most momentum. He's been really, really solid. Obviously Kevin Harvick. On the short tracks it seems like RCR has really figured out things. I raced against him in the Busch side. They're just tough to beat. They got the best cars.
You know, between those two, those guys are going to be tough. You never know who can get on the hot streak.

Q. What was the celebration like Saturday night and Sunday? Have you had any chance yet to speak at length with Tony? What is his perspective on things at this point?
DENNY HAMLIN: Actually we definitely did have a little get-together with the sponsor, friends and that in Richmond after the race. I was really relieved. This has probably been the most stress-free week I've had in the last 10 weeks or so. I really haven't thought about the championship that much, to tell you the truth. This week I'm just really happy to get in. Now everything we do from here on out is going to be a bonus for us. If we finish 10th, we've had a great year. We finish second in points or first, we've had a great year. It's not going to make that much difference other than the material things. I'm not saying we're going to try any less or more.
I did get to speak to Tony yesterday. He seemed happy. I think he's happier that the stress is off and now he can just go out there and race. That's what he loves to do. He doesn't like worrying about points. It's kind of a relief for him.

Q. I know Saturday night after all the hoopla was over, photos were taken, I saw you and a bunch of people go over near the start/finish line with family and friends to take photos. Why did you do it? What did that mean?
DENNY HAMLIN: Obviously, Richmond is a very special racetrack for me. I grew up there. I watched many, many races in those stands. You know, we wanted to have a picture of myself just being on the other side of the fence for a change. It just was great to enjoy that with my family. Getting my picture taken at the racetrack, inside the racetrack, to be able to accomplish what we did that night, to have to overcome the adversity we did, was a huge accomplishment. We were just very excited.

Q. You said you didn't think you could afford to have a Mulligan during this Chase. Why not? How poor a day do you think you can have and still contend then?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it's going to take 10 solid weeks of no worse than 20th place finish. I think these guys are just too solid and they run well every week. I mean, I remember a couple years ago during the Chase, even last year, guys that were kind of contending for the Chase would run 15th some weeks, maybe they'd run 20th, that's just the way they'd run. They really weren't a top five car every week. It seems like these guys are just really, really tough.
I don't know exactly why that is. I just think their teams have gotten better. Everyone has gotten better. I think the 10 teams have really defined themselves. Being that guys are running that solid week in, week out, if you have a 30th place finish or worse, I think it's really going to put you in a hole that I don't think you'll be able to get out of.

Q. You mentioned talking to Tony before. Has he given you any advice on how to deal with these next 10 races?
DENNY HAMLIN: No, we really haven't talked about that yet, which I'm sure we will at the racetrack. He usually finds a way to talk to me before I get in the car, make sure he's the last thing that gets in my mind. As a team, we're focused. Gibbs, it was a bittersweet night for them to get me in, but Tony had to fall out. It was an up-and-down night for everyone.
I think as a whole, the team is ready to give me that push to try to win the championship.

Q. You mentioned this is the best time you've had so far this season because some of that stress is off. How do you think that's going to play into these next 10 races for you?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it's going to be (indiscernible) for the next five weeks or so, depending where we're at after that, I think it's going to be stress-free. I think the last five are going to get back that stress level I had when I didn't know whether I was going to be in the Chase or not. We'll just see where we stack up.
Our goal right now is for these next five to just go out there and have fun and then we end up for the last five.

Q. You realize you're probably the only person saying that in the top 10?
DENNY HAMLIN: Probably. But I really feel like we don't have anything to lose. We've had such a great year that I don't think anything can mess it up right now.

Q. You said before that when you stepped in last year the team really wasn't happy going to the racetrack. At what point did you see that change? Was it this year or last year?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it was last year probably at Phoenix, right after we got that pole. You know, we kind of started off that weekend in a situation where we were not very good in practice. Me and Mike were learning our communication. Then they realized that come qualifying time, when we got it done, you know what, this team can do it and I can do it. I think that's when they started getting a lot of confidence in me.
Obviously built a lot of confidence in them at that point. Every since then, even though we had crashes at Homestead, they just -- they were ready. They were ready for next year. I was sitting there saying, Man, I wish it was next year. They were like, Don't worry, next year's coming. We're going to be contenders. They're the ones telling me that. It just shows their confidence in me.

Q. Out of these next 10 races, which one do you think maybe you can pick it up the most?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think this weekend is going to be a great weekend for us. We've really run well on the mile flat tracks, similar to like Phoenix and Richmond. We've run really good at. This is going to be a good one for us. I feel like Texas, I've always really run well there. Really just a mile and a half racetracks in general our team is really excelling at right now.

Q. When you talk about having fun regardless through this, it sounds a lot like Carl Edwards last year, free and easy. Did you notice his attitude last year? Did you take anything from it? Can you identify with that philosophy of have fun regardless?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, uhm, that's why I basically said that nothing really could mess up this year for us. Sure, if we go out there and we fall on our face and we finish in the 30s numerous times for whatever reason, we're going to be down about it. But when we look at the big picture, there's nothing more that we feel like we need to accomplish this year. We're just going to treat it like any Saturday night race, that points don't matter, and go for it. We spent probably the last five, six races leading up to the Chase making the conservative call, always taking four tires, pitting later so we don't get caught on a different sequence.
We're really going to go for wins right now. We're going to treat it as though we didn't make the Chase, take the Biffle, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart approach, let's just go out and win as many races as we can from here on out.

Q. Going back to the two Pocono wins, the famous video game practice before the first one, I think it was Jeff Gordon or Dale Jr. or both in the aftermath of that said, Video games are nice, but believe me video games weren't the reason he won that race. Did we in the media kind of blow that out of proportion? Do you really look back and say if I hadn't had that video game, it would be hard to be familiar enough to win the race, that first one anyway?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it helped. It wasn't something that made me faster I don't believe. I think it just made me more comfortable at the racetrack than it did anything. When I went there, went around the track, you get used to a racetrack. If you've never been there before, Indy, for instance, it took me probably three, four laps before I was comfortable and I knew where I was at on the racetrack.
Basically when I went around Pocono for the first time, it just cut that time quite a bit from the first, second lap. Hey, I'm comfortable around here. I know where I'm at, know what I'm doing. But nothing beats that on-track experience by any means.
I do tend to agree with them there.

Q. Your crew chief was basically fired from Yates when he couldn't work with Dale Jarret. Why have you and Mike been so successful together, what is the click there?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think Mike was at a point in his career where he was looking for a young guy that he can help mentor and go his whole career with, who was open-minded as far as the race car is concerned.
A lot of crew chiefs go out there, want a veteran driver, teams want a veteran driver because he knows how to do things. Well, I was a person who didn't or don't know. He was able to teach me a lot of things. Even this past Saturday night, he was teaching me that you're entering the corner too fast, you're doing certain things that are not right compared to other guys. It's making me a better race car driver.
I think Mike probably is not getting enough credit for developing me as a driver as he probably should. I think it's just he sees someone that he can basically drive through. It's really working out great. It's a good balance between us.

Q. Did you have any input in that decision or did the Gibbs family say you were going to work with this guy?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, everybody probably knows that Gibbs probably was looking to make a change with Mike within the last year, even though we were successful together. Me and J.D. talked, he was of the opinion that the team had a lot of depth, that I could -- J.D. was making it out to me that I was the reason the team was all of a sudden just doing better. He said, We haven't changed anything but the driver, all of a sudden it's running well. But I assured him that I thought that me and Mike had something special, so he trusted me and kept Mike along. It's really paying off right now.

Q. You were talking about the power shift with NASCAR, 15 teams in the running every week. Yourself, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne basically are the three under 30 drivers in the Chase. Have you had a chance to really think about this youth movement, the effect it might have on the sport, the effect it might have on the Chase?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think the Chase has really got a good balance. You have the under 30 crowd and you have the 30 crowd and you got guys over 40 in there. It's really got a good balance. It just shows we're all on the same level playing field. I really don't see any advantage one way or the other. A veteran being a veteran pays off in certain aspects, being a rookie or a young guy who is inexperienced kind of pays off in certain aspects. You have maybe a little bit more courage than some of those other guys have.
May not be a good thing at all times, but still it's a good balance right now. I feel like we don't really have any more power than what they have. We maybe are a little bit young and dumber.

Q. Do you see that more as coincidence than anything else?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think so. I just think us three guys are with great race teams. We're really in good cars. Everyone knows how important the team you're with means nowadays. Guys can get in other people's cars and just take off. It's all about chemistry, team attitude. I think that means as much as driving ability almost today.

Q. Would you like to see a road course race in the final 10 of the season?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't think so. I mean, as much as I really do like road courses, I just think two is enough. It necessarily would not be fair to have a Chase race in a road course. I just think the last 10 has got a good balance. Most of the tracks we run are mile-and-a-half, and that's what they have in the Chase, mostly mile-and-a-half's. We run very few half-mile tracks. They've got one. We run very few superspeedway. We have one. I think it's balanced out. The entire schedule is balanced out to where that last 10, it pretty much looks like our entire season just pushed down to 10 races.

Q. Go back mentally and think about those days leading up to your first race at the Daytona 500 to today and compare how you feel about the emotions of today to those emotions. Are they different?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think they are a little bit different. I was really excited obviously leading up to the 500, the start of the new year. We had just won the shootout the week before. We were kind of -- I don't know. I was still kind of worried about whether I was going to make the Chase or not. I didn't realize we were going to have such a great year. I think it was kind of an unknown. I was more stressed about how we were going to run this year at that time than I was now I know we're solid every week and we're a Chase contender.
To me the stress is off and I've done more in my rookie year than what I'd hoped. Now it's just time to have fun really.

Q. You mentioned earlier about the photo of you and your family on the other side of the fence at Richmond. I'm sure your life has changed in a lot of different ways where two years ago you walked into a restaurant, you would say, Hey, there is Tony Stewart. Now people walk in and say, There's Denny Hamlin.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, that's definitely been probably the biggest change as a person, is to see the reaction I get out of other people. You know, to me that's kind of weird. I feel like really I'm nobody special by any means.
I really don't see why some people make such a big deal sometimes. But then I think about how I was. I thought the same thing just a couple years ago about any driver.
It's still kind of different for me. I'm still learning from it. You know, of course by running better you get a little bit more notoriety. Things are definitely starting to change for the good.

Q. Just imagine what would happen if you win this thing.
DENNY HAMLIN: I know. I haven't really even thought about it. That's the honest truth this week. Haven't thought about the championship whatsoever. All I've really thought about is that I'm in good company with those nine drivers that I'm with. You know, we're just looking forward to the rest of the year.

Q. You look at this Chase, you're one of only three without a mate in the Chase. Do you think that puts you, Dale Jr., Kasey Kahne, at a disadvantage right out of the gate?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't think so because I think the good part about that is we can use our teammates to kind of be not necessarily experiment for us but kind of in a way. I mean, they really don't have much to lose, so they can maybe try some things for us, maybe some two-tire stops early in a race for us so we don't have to do it and risk losing track position.
With those guys having teammates in the Chase, they got to be on their guard at all times, too. They got to look out for their-selves. I feel a lot of confidence knowing I have Tony and J.J. behind me pushing me 100% instead of, you know, us kind of having to race the 20 and think we're fighting for points against this guy, too, so we need to be careful.
I think it's honestly an advantage to be one of your only teammates in the Chase.

Q. How much is running full-time in the Busch Series and also in the Cup Series helping you?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think it's been 50/50. There's been half the weeks where I've left the race on Saturday night and said, This has been a benefit, and half of them that I said, I'm just wasting my time, basically I didn't learn anything, I think it's hurt. It's kind of got me confused on what I got going on on Sunday.
You know, it's been 50/50. Looking back on it, this has been a great year. I've got a chance to be second in the points. That's a huge accomplishment for a lot of people. I'm glad I chose to run the whole schedule.

Q. Kevin Harvick has that title pretty much in hand. What kind of consideration have you given to maybe just doing Cup the rest of the season?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don't think it's really a consideration being that we are fighting for second in points, and that means a lot to the team. I gave the sponsor and the team my word I was going to be there 100% no matter what goes on with the Cup car. I just think it would be the right thing to do whether it hurts the Cup car or not. I have obligations and I have a whole 'nother group of guys that have 100% confidence in me. The only way to keep that is to be loyal to them.

Q. I have a family background question. What traits learned or inherited do you believe helped propel you for the Chase for the Championship in your rookie year?
DENNY HAMLIN: Wow, I definitely would probably say my dad's impatience at times. He's probably the worst, most impatient person I've ever met. I can get that same way. I don't want to have to wait to be successful. I want to do things right away. I want to do whatever it takes to be successful. I think that's kind of helped me.
And my mom, I guess maybe you could say driving ability from my mom. She is wide open on the highway. I mean, she is on the gas or on the brake constantly. It almost makes me seasick she drives so fast sometimes.
Between those two, they definitely helped me out with the genes, that's for sure.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, Denny, for joining us today. We appreciate it. Good luck on Sunday.
DENNY HAMLIN: Thank you.

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