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September 3, 2017

Joe Gibbs

Denny Hamlin

Michael Wheeler

Darlington, South Carolina

THE MODERATOR: We're going to continue with our interviews post‑race of the Southern 500, and we've now been joined by our race team owner, Joe Gibbs, and our race‑winning crew chief, Mike Wheeler, also better known in the NASCAR garage as "Wheels." We'll just start tonight talking about that race. Obviously an incredible battle there at the end, Denny taking the win. As he mentioned, was able to win here in the XFINITY race, which I know probably gave him a lot of momentum going into today, but Coach, we'll start with you. Talk a little bit about what it means to bring home another Southern 500 win but also how this sets you guys up for a great spot heading into the playoffs in just a few weeks.
JOE GIBBS: Yeah, I think coming to Darlington you can see it in everybody that races here, it's one of those places that has history. It's one of the hardest places we race to get a win. The crowd tonight I thought was great, and so it's a thrill for us coming here. I think Denny is‑‑ I think back to‑‑ I think he's a great sports story. When J.D. first met him and put him in that very first test, part of the second race we put him in, J.D. said let's put him in at Darlington in an XFINITY car, and Denny had never seen the place, and he came over here and finished ninth, and J.D. said, I think we need to sign this guy, and I said, I think you're right, and kind of the rest is history.
But I think it's a great story. Denny, I think you can tell when he goes to certain racetracks, too, he's got some favorites in there that he's awful good at, and I think this is one of them.
THE MODERATOR: Wheels, just talk a little bit about your vantage point on the pit box kind of how the race played out and ultimately the last run for Denny. He was catching Martin even before Martin essentially hit the wall there at the end. Talk a little bit about what that was like from your seat and also as we get closer to the playoffs how this team is gaining momentum and really prepping for those final 10 races.
MICHAEL WHEELER: The race played out very fortunate for us. We didn't really struggle too much. We ran top 5 all night. The guys did a really good job on pit road. We were doing well. I'm proud of the fact that we had good speed and Denny was able to run up front. I was getting a little nervous that the 78 looked a little faster. So we're going to just keep battling and try to get him at the end, then it came down to strategy. Tried to make sure we made not the wrong call, so we were doing our numbers, and I seen everybody else pitting, and ultimately just made surewe tried to give our driver the best chance to win, even though it might not work in our favor.
I didn't think once he missed pit road we had a great chance anymore. I knew he gave up 10 seconds on the leaders, and ultimately as much as I was trying to coach him to get mad and get even with everyone else, I knew it was hard to make up 10 seconds over one stint, but I'm proud of the fact that the car was that fast. Denny is obviously a wheel man here. If you don't win here with Denny, you probably didn't have a good enough car. Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car.

Q. Wheels, you touched on the pit road miscue there briefly. What exactly did you tell him?
MICHAEL WHEELER: You know, I don't even remember. I was mad. You know, it's one of those things, I try to stay focused on what's going on, forward and not what just happened. I saw we ran a 41‑second lap and I know that's hard to overcome when we're trying to do math on one and two seconds of sequences and pit stop gains. But I noticed when we came out that the 41 and 78 were battling each other pretty hard and losing a half second a lap doing that, so I knew that as long as they were battling that hard and hurting their tires, they were going to be in trouble to make it the whole distance without falling off really hard. We got within 10 seconds, and I'm like, okay, we should be leading right now, but we still had about 35 to go, and I'm like, we've got a long time to go. About 20 to go, we were within like five seconds, we were on a break‑even with the leaders, but once we got within 15, I realized as much as Denny was pushing it, Truex was falling off even harder than he ever had all night.
Seeing that, it was like, just keep trying to feed Denny information and get him to get up on it, and it went from a tenth or two a lap to four tenths a lap, and I knew the math would work out that we could win by two seconds. I thought we gave it up with some lap car got in the way and Denny gave him a big punt. I was hoping they'd let us race it out, but fortunately Truex had to push harder than he probably needed to and hurt his tires and ended up in the fence, and we drove by.
THE MODERATOR: We've now been joined by our race winner, driver of the No.11 Sport Clips Toyota, Denny Hamlin. You were extremely excited after the race, but having the opportunity to run the throwback paint scheme which you've also kind of throughout the weekend talked about how special that was for you, but talk a little bit about the win for you tonight, what it does for you heading into the playoffs in a couple weeks, but also the opportunity to win in that special paint scheme this evening.
DENNY HAMLIN: It was all really cool.
No, all of it was awesome. I mean, to win in the Flying 11 and to win the XFINITY race, to win the Cup race, both in very exciting fashion was a great feeling, and tonight through the adversity of missing the pit road and coming back. We had great strategy, a fast car, and it all just worked out in the end. I was hoping it would. Otherwise I would have looked pretty silly after the race trying to explain why we lost.
You know, it's just I think a lot of that came from Truex beating us on a green flag sequence earlier in the day, and so I pushed it a little bit more on pit entry, and I didn't want it to happen again, and I just pushed it a little bit too much. Kind of a rookie move, but also just trying to optimize everything, and it was just we got our car better as soon as it turned into night. We kept getting the car better, kept making adjustments and kept working on it, and we had something we could win with.
It's proud to win them in that fashion, especially as a total team effort. Pit crew did a great job all night getting us out in front two or three times. We had a great strategy. The car was great, and the driver did okay at the end, too.

Q. Wheels, obviously strategy in these things is very fluid. At what point did it become clear to you that you needed to go for that double long stretch there at the end in order to have a shot at the win?
MICHAEL WHEELER: Yeah, that's a good way to put it, definitely fluid. It's difficult because you can't go on last year's notes and lap times to see where you should be. Truthfully, I noticed early in the race, I believe it was end of segment 2, where Denny and Truex were definitely the best long‑run cars. It was about 56 laps they were going on tires and a couple guys were dropping the anchor, and Denny and Truex were running them down, and it was apparent that our tire wear was great, or it looked better than the field. You heard comments about guys having cords and all that kind of stuff, and Denny managed his stuff well, and we worked separate on it, too‑‑ but Denny manages his stuff very well. Yeah, I won't say anything else.
So you know, the last stint when we were running top two or‑‑ yeah, I think we were leading. I knew the moment the 78 short pitted us we could not come back around and be ahead of him. That caught us off guard earlier. We were going to pit in like two or three laps. I followed suit early in the race, and we came up behind him because you lose three or four seconds of a lap time here. So I knew our best option was not bite on the other guy short pitting that thing because they short pitted the stint by 10 or 15 laps. Some guys were going two laps and we were going to do one stop.
It was painful to do and I'm glad it worked out in our favor, but I made sure we just stayed diligent on our numbers and make sure ‑‑ when Denny was in clean air he was able to run good lap times on long runs, but I knew mathematically it should work out if the cautions don't fall or fall in our favor. I thought we were in trouble when we lost 10 seconds there, but ultimately I knew the other guys were going to have to save their tires to make the last 10 laps, and it worked out in our favor.

Q. Denny, you have the most wins of any active driver who hasn't won a title, so I'm curious what might be different this year that would allow you to win the title, and is it something that gnaws at you?
DENNY HAMLIN: This year is really no different. I mean, we've been at this point before where we've had wins going into the playoffs. You know, luck has kept us from championships in the past, and mistakes have kept us from championships in the past. Not many times has it been performance. I think you've just got to put those two things together and prepare for anything that can get thrown to you, and I know Coach is all about having a game plan, and it's something I've really worked hard on this year is studying notes and coming up with a game plan when I get to the racetrack of how I'm going to approach things, and I think that it's paying off, and hopefully it pays off 11, 12 races from now.

Q. Wheels, I know you said you can't really go off of last year's notes and everything like that, but this was the first time since 2006 a 500‑mile race here had ended with more than 100 laps of consecutive green. Did you think there would be a yellow, and if there was, how did you think that would affect things?
MICHAEL WHEELER: I think a lot of the races go green now with the stages falling out the way they do and NASCAR letting things race out it's great to see because it makes its own story lines. So as much as I thought someone might hit the fence, spin out, blow a tire, I knew we shouldn't try to call a race on that. Ultimately you try to make sure that you position yourself to go the distance the best you can. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't go your way, but I wasn't going to take it away from us. I knew we had a good enough car and obviously a great enough driver, but I wanted to make sure we gave him a full opportunity to make the best long run car and driver and get there at the end.
You know, you just can't use last year's data before the race. Someone said it's very fluid. It is, and we were calculating data live on the pit box, and I've got two young engineers that we've been together for three races now, so I'm really proud of that effort because they weren't wrong, they were right. But that big hiccup, it would have not shown up, but for him to come that far back as quickly as he did, it was pretty impressive.

Q. Denny, do you feel like NASCAR is more inclined to let races play out naturally?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, as they should. Look what happened. You had a car run down the leader from a long way back and pass him essentially coming to two to go. Yeah, I mean, I think that it puts the strategy back in the crew chiefs', the drivers' hands. We are a throwback weekend, and this is a throwback to saving tires and a long, grueling race, and I like it ending on a sequence like that.

Q. Martin Truex Jr. clinched the regular season title, so he's going to start the playoffs with at least 52 points every round. What kind of advantage do you think that's going to give him to get to Miami?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's a big advantage, but it's well‑earned. Anytime anyone can dominate the regular season essentially like he has, he deserves to have a mulligan in each round, so I applaud them and hope we keep it the same going forward. I hope if we perform that well next year and have that big of a lead, it's well‑earned and the competitors respect that, and I think that everyone in the garage will say that it's well‑earned and deserved.

Q. You've got seven wins here now between the Cup and XFINITY. How does a driver ever get comfortable at a track where you wouldn't think you could get ever get comfortable enough to win like you have?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, there's something about the racetrack that kind of suits my driving style. From the very first time I game here at a test, Tony Stewart was here, and kind of really helped me kind of find my way around this racetrack. But I don't know, I don't know what it is about it, but it just suits the way I drive. You know, to be able to run a little bit unorthodox line I think helps me at this racetrack, and I think really just every time I come back, I learn a little bit more from what I did in the past, and it just‑‑ you refine the way you do things and you get a little bit better and it's led to success.

Q. Wheels, Kyle Busch was talking about how you and Stevens basically had the strategy nailed with being able to call the later pit stop the way you did, but knowing how much the tire wear has grown here, especially the last couple of years, is that ever something that you go into a race thinking that at the end of it you can‑‑ you're trying to plan to be on the freshest tires?
MICHAEL WHEELER: Yeah, you come into the race realizing you need to do the analysis during the race. Fortunately the Cup races are long enough where you can get some actual data for the first half of the race and realize what you're trying to do between tire wear and lap times and all that kind of stuff. The XFINITY race you're kind of guessing more. But having the race yesterday, I went down to Eric Phillips and those guys to kind of see what they were doing, being on the same tire, a little bit different car, but you can kind of grasp that.
Adam and I, we hung out together. We grew up together in racing here, so we've been around each other for a long time, and I think we see the same type of things in what we want to do with lap times. And ultimately, we kind of lost Pocono by not doing this. The 18 did the opposite, and it was apparent afterwards that we needed to make sure we did the right thing for us and not just right to the field. It was painful. I'm not going to lie. I'm sitting there when everybody else was pitting on lap 300 to 310, I was like, man, I hope this works out for us. It should, but Denny ran some good lap times on old tires, and it was the difference.

Q. And Wheels talks about it, Denny, you running the best lap times as you're racing that last stint, after immediately missing pit road there right before you and Kyle came down. I know any time you make a mistake in a race car, it's going to push you to race that little bit harder, but how big a motivator is it realizing that Kyle has just got around you and that could be the race? How big of a motivator was that on that last stint?
DENNY HAMLIN: It was a big motivator, but I think they did a good job of reminding me to set up my passes and not just ‑‑ there's different ways to get around this racetrack, and running faster is not always the fastest way. It's really weird, but you've got to just know when to pass, know when to let off, and position yourself for a pass, and I think I optimized the traffic that I was in when I had fresher tires.

Q. It's a rhythm track basically?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, it's a big rhythm track, so you don't want to catch people at a bad time. It's very similar to road course racing in that sense that you don't want to catch people in the wrong corners or else it costs a lot of lap time.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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