Hamlin At Home Talking About Home Track
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
Increasingly in NASCAR these days, interviews with top drivers occur in scrums held behind the team hauler in the garage. The driver stands on the steps. Reporters push and shove their way to the front, trying to get in a question or two. Others stand around the periphery, straining to hear over the noise from the track and the garage.
Veteran PR representative Dave Ferroni calls it fast-food journalism.
On Friday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, Denny Hamlin held his weekly scrum. Reporters fired away their questions. Hamlin answered. But as the crowd dwindled to just a couple of reporters, the fast-food frenzy died down, and Hamlin began serving up steak and potatoes, so to speak.
The subject of his personal disappointments at his home track, Richmond International Raceway, was broached. It was as if Hamlin had been waiting to talk about them.
The sunglasses came off. His smile grew brighter. There was animation, liveliness in his voice, lots of eye contact. A good old-fashioned two-way conversation began to take place.
Hamlin talked of his first trip to the Richmond track, about 18 miles from his home in Chesterfield. It was in 1992. He sat in the Turn Four stands and watched Bill Elliott out-duel Alan Kulwicki for the victory. From that day until now, he’s seen or raced in at least one race a year since. There was no mistaking that the three-quarter-mile ribbon of asphalt held a special place in his heart.
He talked about his first Cup start there, in the spring of 2006.
Amazingly he was leading with 52 laps to go and appeared to have the car to beat.
But a caution flag flew, his pit stop was slow, and he was unable to regain the lead from eventual winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I still have that DVD,” Hamlin said with a smile that one might expect from a kid caught reaching into the cookie jar. It must be bad form for big-time race drivers to admit getting a rush from watching themselves on TV.
“I don’t watch it as much as I used to. It still amazes me that I was in position to win,” he said. “I remember going down the straightaway, foot on the gas pedal, shaking, thinking, ‘This could be an unbelievable story….win the race on my first try at Richmond.”
But like the tale of the big fish that got away just as the dip net was dropped in the water, Hamlin’s victory wasn’t meant to be.
“We were leading, pulling away, the caution came out and we came out of the pits third or fourth and couldn’t make it up,” he said.
Last spring, Hamlin was in a similar position, only to be let down again. He was no rookie this time. Experience had taught him that the fastest car doesn’t always win, and that a driver who is fast in the early and middle stages of a race can easily lose that edge as other teams and drivers tune their cars.
Still, he acknowledged getting his hopes up after starting from the pole and becoming stronger with each pit stop.
“Usually, at some point guys are going to catch up and figure it out,” he said. “But we just kept getting our car better, and other guys were just maintaining. Halfway through the race I was thinking ‘maybe.’”
Then after the final pit stop, the last real chance for the competition to catch up, Hamlin emerged with an even bigger advantage.
“We came out, and our car was the best it’s ever been,” he said. “We pulled away from the pack. I thought, ‘This is it.’”
Most drivers would never publicly admit that they ever began thinking about Victory Lane before the checkered flag fell. Hamlin didn’t seem to mind.
“At this point, I’m starting to think, ‘What am I going to feel like when I get out of the race car? What are my emotions going to be? What am I going to say?’” he said.
He thought of his parents, who struggled to keep him in a Late Model long enough for a top NASCAR team to notice him. And his mind wandered to his friends up in the suite he’d rented for them.
“I remember thinking, ‘How excited are my parents going to be when I get out of the car?’” he said. “They’re going to be in Victory Lane.”
And he imagined how his friends in the suites would react.
“I bet they’re going absolutely nuts,” he said. “What’s this going to mean, not to me but to everybody around me? How excited are they going to be?”
Then he drove off in a corner, after dominating 381 laps, and he was jarred back to the cold, harsh reality of big-time racing. His right front was going flat.
“That split instant in that corner, you feel the right front fall down and it goes from joy to you beating the steering wheel off,” he said.
Even as the stories got to the sour parts, Hamlin kept smiling, buoyed by the belief that at some point his racing luck will change. The disappointments at Richmond and elsewhere will be evened out.
“I’m going to win about 20 races one year, going to go on a rampage,” he said. “People will wonder what’s going on, but it’ll just be me getting paid back.”No Comment