September 5, 2021
Darlington, South Carolina, USA
An Interview with:
THE MODERATOR: We're now joined by our race winner, Denny Hamlin. Denny, can you walk us through the win that you've been chasing all season, get it at the Playoff opener and then just to kind of top that all off it's at a place that you really enjoy. So just walk us through that.
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I mean, this is a major -- for our sport, the Southern 500 has obviously got a lot of history. It means a lot now to win -- on top of that, you add the first race of the Playoffs, we get to go to the next round, first win of the year. It's certainly a very significant win in my career.
THE MODERATOR: We're going get into questions for Denny. We are also joined by the race winning crew chief, Chris Gabehart. Let's kick things off.
Q. Congratulations Denny. During the regular season, you had maintained all year that you guys were capable of getting to Victory Lane, but how frustrating was it not to be able to actually do it? And then how much of a relief was it to put it together at a critical time?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, we had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races, and we only really had the fastest car twice and we understood that. But the 5 just went on a tear there, and for us, it certainly is significant. I'm not going to downplay the significance of it. It's not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.
We didn't have the Playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these Playoffs. There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.
Q. And considering the next couple races, including Richmond next week, for you does it kind of turn your Playoff perspective on its head a little bit as your approach now?
DENNY HAMLIN: You know, I don't think it will change a whole lot for us. I mean, certainly from my standpoint I think this allows me to really focus on getting ready for the Roval. That's the one road course where, you know, I just haven't had good finishes.
I think my car has been tore all to pieces there just about every time I've run there.
So to me it's going to let me focus on the Roval, get more reps on it and get better at it because obviously that's a very important one in the next round.
THE MODERATOR: It looks like we are also joined here by Coach Joe Gibbs, so if you do have a question for Coach, as well, please raise your hand. We'll continue on with questions.
Q. Denny, conceivably the next couple of races coming up you could probably win the next two and sweep the first round. So how important is that to be able to have so many strong tracks to kick off this part of the Playoffs?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's good. I mean, when we look at this round, we knew that like this is our wheelhouse of tracks. These are the ones that we're going to perform really good at. Statistically, I mean, yesterdays results, there's no guarantee today, but I knew that I feel like I've got somewhat of a small advantage on the field at tracks like this where I've learned so much at this track over time.
And honestly, I wanted to rack up more stage points. Now this is going to help us going into the next round. We've got six more points than what we had before. So this is certainly a big help for that.
And again we want to go to Richmond, win every stage, win that race too. We're not going to take these next two weeks off. We want to keep this momentum going. That way when we get to that treacherous round 2 we're ready and we're in Playoff form.
Q. And what did you think when you saw the 5 car in your rearview mirror make that move at the end?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well I was -- this racetrack is very unique in the sense that, like, you can go faster you've just got to get closer and closer to the wall. My job the last run was just hold him at a five-, six-car-length bay. That's all I wanted to do. I didn't need to go any further out than that. I didn't want to put my car at risk any more than I had to. So I just kind of maintained that five to six car lengths.
Coming to the white, he got a great run off the 4. I didn't get that good of a run close to four car lengths, and I'm like, still manageable. As long as I don't mess up, this thing is all manageable, I should be fine. And then they said he got all the way to me and I felt him bump me getting into Turn 3. I'm like, Where did he come from? He must have done something crazy to drive in that deep.
But it was cool that we were able to hold him off. But I'm sure it was very exciting from everyone else's standpoint. He said he had run out of options he wanted to try it. And it nearly worked.
Q. And for Coach Gibbs, was that almost like seeing a Hail Mary pass get caught at the 2-yard line?
JOE GIBBS: Well, I had an experience there, I was trying to hold my breath for 26 laps. (Laughter.) I'll put it that way.
Tonight, that was hard fought. ^ Ink ^ I think Darlington kind of produces that. But you had so many people have so many problems and issues. And a lot of them are the cars that are in the Chase.
So I think it says a lot about the racetrack. We appreciate the fans being here. And for us, Denny fought his heart out. Chris did a great job for him. We got Offerpad, which is a newer sponsor there for us, and we got FedEx. So all of those things are just super important for us.
Couldn't be happier tonight to get ^ threw ^ through that, and we're excited kind of about where we are. The Lord blessed us with a great night.
Q. This is for coach. Coach, we saw Kyle obviously have issues earlier tonight. Were you able to have a conversation with him, and how do you approach these next two weeks with Kyle currently sitting outside the cut line?
JOE GIBBS: Yeah. Well, ^ ink ^ I think everybody in the sport -- he's been through the Playoffs a number of times. We have. And it's extremely tough. You've got three races, it's like the whole Playoff.
The thing that probably helped us some, it seemed like a lot of cars that were in the Chase had issues. And so I haven't seen where the points are or anything.
But this is going to be a hard-fought deal for the next two weeks. ^ Ink ^ I think that's probably what the fans like. But there's going to be a lot on the line. As I mentioned, this race was -- it was really tough tonight. It was physical. A lot of cars got tore up. And I think we were just thrilled to get Denny, and Martin had a decent night. I really felt like Christopher, you know, with Sport Clips who's always been a great sponsor for us here, he got messed up some, too. So two of our cars had issues.
Q. Question for Denny. You know, I think we talked about it earlier this week that this was shaping up to be a situation where your best was yet to come. Do you feel like you guys are starting to show that now, and what can this window for these next nine weeks for you guys?
DENNY HAMLIN: I certainly hope so. I mean, we've been just second, third place car most of the year. I mean, which is, you know -- there are about 33 teams that would love to have that.
But we just -- we've been very, very close. And obviously the 5 has been kind of standout from the field, and we've just kind of been the next best and then on average. So we just -- you needed a race like this where my crew chief was telling me when we had pulled away from third place there on the third to last run, green flag run, he says, You know, okay, we're back in the ballgame. I need you to just keep us in the game here. Keep us in the game. Keep optimizing your lap time.
I knew what my job was. I knew before he said -- he didn't have to tell me what our strategy was I knew what it was going to be based off of the lap times that I saw on the long run, and I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but certainly I knew what my job was, and when we got that caution there, we didn't have the greatest pit stop. I kind of which chunked it a little bit out of the pit stall and the 19 got around us, and I'm like, gosh, we just had an opportunity to take control of the race and we didn't do it and then the 19 had a penalty.
I knew from that point he was going to have to rassle me for the race win. I was not going to let him go, and it was going to probably going to get physical like it was in the last lap, if it didn't happen any sooner.
THE MODERATOR: Chris, is this a track within the first round that you kind of had circled with Denny's past experiences and the two of you together? And then how do you kind of approach the next couple races in this round? Do you focus on the next round since you're locked in or how do you approach the next couple of races?
CHRIS GABEHART: Yeah. Certainly when you look at Denny's history here and the 750 tracks and Darlington, Richmond, Bristol, it's a dream round really.
And there comes -- there's a certain amount of pressure that comes with that because these are all extremely talented race car drivers, and they've obviously had Denny's data to study for a lot of years now at these tracks so it's hard to keep reinventing yourself.
But again what I say about Denny at tracks like this is his risk assessment is just really, really high for a really long time. He showed it again tonight. It wasn't a perfect night but it's hard to be perfect in the Southern 500.
To your point about the next two races, I feel a whole lot better about going to the Daytona NextGen test the next few days; I can tell you that for starters. So Denny and I are going to celebrate this win for two days in Daytona.
But, no, golly, we were so good at Richmond the last time we were there, just let that win slip away.
And then at the Bristol night race, it's, you know, probably my favorite race, tied with this race. It's coming up after. So to go into those two races as the only team pressure free is just going to make us that much more dangerous those two races and we're not going to let off the gas because of it; you can believe that.
Q. Chris, it was quite clear last year at Phoenix that you guys didn't have the speed at that place and I'm just curious about the effort to improve the speed on the 750 tracks and what -- even though this is a different track, what tonight means in terms of having that speed, especially with you and the 19.
CHRIS GABEHART: Yeah. There's definitely been a lot of effort put forth. I think the amazing thing about our sport is it's so many little things. You can't just point to one spot where you put forth the effort and say that's the difference. But certainly it's been there. I mean, we've been really, really fast this year in 750s, I would argue, if not the fastest car, really, really close to it on average.
And while this certainly doesn't translate to Phoenix, I look at Loudon, and we were really strong there and had an unfortunate last yellow flag stop that kind of took us out of the game with the lug nut thing, and then Richmond, we were really pretty dominant at Richmond last time, the strongest we've been at Richmond in a really long time.
So ^ ink ^ I think we're definitely clicking on all eight, but Phoenix is so far in the distance. I don't really even focus on that. I am looking forward to going to Richmond and Bristol pressure free. I'm not going to lie about that. Those are going to be two races that I'm really going to enjoy. Denny knows how much Bristol means to me, so I'm looking forward to it.
We finally got a feel for Vegas, I feel like. We've got a good baseline for Vegas, and that will be the first race of the next round. So I'm full throttle, man. Looking forward to it.
Q. And Denny, obviously it's not the first time you beat Kyle Larson even this season but it's the first time to beat him for a win. To be able to beat him for a win, even with all the things that you guys have done this season, what does it mean to just beat that 5 car?
DENNY HAMLIN: I mean, it means a lot. I mean, certainly you don't like just -- being the next best every single week. You know, you got to give credit to them. They performed the last 12 races of the regular season like we did the first 12, only they got the wins. They finished it off and got the wins when they were dominant. And so you got to give them their due.
Kyle is obviously a tremendous talent, and certainly I take pride in it. We're very close friends off the racetrack and we talk a lot. It's great to be in a battle with one of your good friends.
Q. Did you expect something like that at the end from him?
DENNY HAMLIN: I figured there was something coming. I thought that he was actually going to dive down low because I had started backing up on entry to Turn 3 to make sure I kept it off the wall. As I kind of was maintaining that gap to him, I just kept creeping down a little bit to make sure I gave myself a little bit more room. With that you're giving up lap time. So I thought that the bold move was going to come from the bottom. But, yeah, I mean, I didn't certainly didn't think he was going to get by my rear bumper as far back as he was. But he had an interesting strategy. It nearly worked out.
Q. Denny, unfortunately part of your personal life became public this week. Was it a distraction for you?
DENNY HAMLIN: I just -- I'm a professional and do my job the best I can, and today I thought we did as good as we could. We executed. Finally the anvil didn't drop right on us like it did yesterday.
So I was proud of the effort that we put forth. My team is always giving the best effort, and I know my job every Sunday.
Q. This is a question for Chris. Did you feel like you beat the 5 team more on strategy tonight or speed?
CHRIS GABEHART: That's tough. ^ Ink ^ I think it's honestly a little hard to say. Certainly the first two stages it was clear we didn't have the speed to just dominate. I mean, we kept them close and there was a point there where I even told Denny on the radio, okay, we're in the ball game here, you can see we're running second. We fixed a few things about what he was doing in the car, picked up some lap time.
At that point I told him, don't forget, this is Darlington, just keep us in the game; we're close, we're where we need to be.
Then in that third stage when strategy went haywire and we kind of split, I honestly think it turned the focus from who had the better car to this crazy strategy and how it was going to play out and sort of camouflaged strengths and weaknesses of the two cars and how they had progressed over the last 100 laps, and clearly when it came time for a run there at the end, we were good enough.
Denny just told you he had a little in the tank, but Darlington will reach out and bite you if you get too greedy.
Had the 5 been in front of us, I'm not saying we could have passed him, but clearly the 5 was -- we were in front of the 5 and he couldn't pass us, so ^ ink ^ I think in the end we were definitely close on both.
Q. Going forward you're assuming you're going to keep battling with this 5 team. Do you feel like speed is sort of where it needs to be to compete with them every week at this point?
CHRIS GABEHART: Well, it's racing. So definitely speed is always -- I'm not going to say a cure all. But it's a very important ingredient. But this is NASCAR racing, and, you know, here is the truth. Denny and I have been here the last two years. We've experienced the fact that it's not enough just to be fast. You have to execute clean each and every lap of the next nine races. And you seen a lot of teams that weren't able to do that at Darlington. There's a lot of pressure that comes along with that.
Denny and I are -- have certainly become familiar with that together over the last couple seasons. We've learned a lot from it and looking forward to carrying on.
Q. Also for Chris. What do you make of all the attrition that was out there tonight with all the Playoff cars? It just seemed like for a Playoff opener there was a pretty high degree of people making mistakes and things like that.
CHRIS GABEHART: No, there wasn't. It's the Southern 500 at Darlington. These guys, they're the best stock car drivers in the world, so they make it look easy, no different than Tom Brady makes wing the Super Bowl look easy. But it's not easy, guys. And Darlington at the Southern 500 will remind you of that.
So NASCAR racing was born on endurance racing, and in a lot of ways it's sort of ran its course. There's not a lot of 500-mile races that are a thriller anymore. But Darlington is the true quintessential NASCAR race in that, you know, the endurance really is the test. Man, machine for 500 miles, and you saw that tonight. There were only a few guys left standing at the end with a shot to win, and that's just a tribute to this racetrack and this race.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, we're going to let you go. Thank you so much for taking some time with us. We wish you the best of luck.
JOE GIBBS: Appreciate it, thanks. I'm going to mention Bass Pro and Johnny and Auto Owners on that car, the 19, finishing fourth. We're proud of him. Thanks!
THE MODERATOR: Denny and Chris, we have a couple more for you.
Q. This is for Denny. I know it's early in the Playoffs, but do you see this coming down to you and Larson come Phoenix?
DENNY HAMLIN: Oh, my gosh, there's just so much racing left. Who knows; right? I mean, we thought that 2020 when we won seven races me and Harvick were locked, right. Harvick wasn't a lock, and it came down to the last lap at Martinsville, and it was going to be him or me.
So I certainly think if you look at the numbers, we've been the best two cars. We had, what is it, like a four- or five-race gap in points. Like over the next -- over third place? Like that's a significant amount of points because we've been the best two teams on average each and every week.
He took over kind of the lead reins I thought the last 12 races or so, and those guys deserve all the credit that they -- and all the accolades and all the praises that they got. They just performed flawlessly and no mistakes and they were fast and won stage, won races.
At one point we're thinking, well, they're just going to win every week. So, you know, from their mindset it's like, well, they got the speed, they got a great driver, so they probably should win every week. But you just never know what can happen. That's why they race these races.
So I lean on my experience and when I don't always have the very fastest car, we've got a good crew chief and good team to figure out how else can we win because it ain't always about speed.
But I certainly feel like we've closed the gap. I would love to race Larson in the last race the same as I would -- I loved to race Harvick last year in the final race. But you just never know. This is the format, right. And you just never know because it's a three-race season, and what you did for the first 30-something when you get down to the end just doesn't matter.
Q. I was going to say Harvick won this race a year ago. So I mean, does it -- is your greatest fear having something happen to you like happened to him?
DENNY HAMLIN: I mean, it's not a fear of performance. I can tell you that. If we -- on performance, we're good enough, we should be in the Final Four. It's the everything else. It's everything else that happens in the middle of a race that can take you out.
I mean, the Xfinity race, right, that's a prime example. You're going to win and there's a caution and then you have a penalty. Like all the things can take you out.
I give my crew chief a lot of credit. He had a great group message with the team yesterday about, you know, it's time to go now. This is what we work for. He's been a great leader of the team and those guys understand their roles and we all understand if we want to win, and we're going to beat the best, we're going to have to -- everyone's going to have to do their job flawlessly with no mistakes. And today we did that.
Q. I was just curious on what your expectations were for the NextGen test of Daytona, and are there goals that you specifically want to accomplish?
DENNY HAMLIN: For me just kind of building a logbook of how that car drafts. Obviously the first time we're going to run it I think is going to be the Daytona 500. I'm not sure. But it's going to be a car that drafts completely different. So I want to try to gather all the information I can on what it likes and what it doesn't like, try to provide NASCAR and my team the information they need for the test.
This will be the first time it's on a racetrack with that many cars. So we're going to get a sample size of kind of what we're in for next year. And hopefully it performs as good as we hope.
THE MODERATOR: All right, Denny and Chris. We're going to let you guys go so Coach doesn't leave you guys behind. Congratulations on the victory. We wish you the best of luck on the upcoming races at Richmond and Bristol.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports