Distractions No Problem For Contender Hamlin

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 25 2020

Denny Hamlin says the chores of becoming a Cup team co-owner are not detracting from his run at a first series championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Denny Hamlin’s pursuit of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship is being played-out against the backdrop of perhaps the ultimate motorsports “distraction.”

Hamlin, of Joe Gibbs Racing, has partnered with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing, which is fast-tracking to make its Cup debut with driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace at the 2021 season-opening Daytona 500 in February. That target means NASCAR’s notoriously short November-through-January offseason basically will not exist for Hamlin, who hopes to end 2020 with his first Cup title.

To that end, Hamlin will start Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway third in the Round of 8 Playoff standings, 20 points above the Championship 4 cutoff. Joey Logano of Team Penske secured the first spot in NASCAR’s Final Four at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8 with his victory at Kansas Speedway last Sunday. Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing leads the point standings after his runnerup finish at Kansas and sits 41 points above the cutoff line.

A seven-time winner this season, Hamlin finished a lackluster 15th after bouncing off the wall at the 1.5-mile Kansas layout. Still, he was the picture of confidence during a NASCAR Zoom conference with media on Friday morning. 

“I think there is no one that’s going to make 20 points up on us if we just perform our normal way, as we’ve been performing all year,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Shipathon Toyota Camry. “Now, things change. We saw Kansas, things changed really quick. We go from possibly winning the race to finishing 15th, but I think our on-track performance will be enough.

“It’s just all of the variables that you don’t know about. It’s wrecks, it’s pit road, it’s someone pulling out in front of you and doing damage. There’s just so many little things that can affect your finish that you just don’t usually account for, but I would rather be 20 up than 20 down. That’s for sure.”

The three-race Round of 8 will conclude on Nov. 1 at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway, home turf for the native Virginian.

“From my standpoint, we think we will win the next three weeks in a row,” Hamllin said. “If we do that, it all works out. If we don’t, we essentially need to think about where the people we are racing for points, where are they at on the racetrack. If they’re running 12th, and I’m trying to make second and make a ballsy move up in the PJ1 (traction compound) to try to get second, for what? That one point is not worth the risk of losing it all and being negative, so you have to drive smarter in that sense. But if you’re behind, you have to race like you’re behind. 

“That’s the advantage of being plus versus negative, is that you’re able to play off of your competition a little bit, make sure that they don’t get on a different strategy than you do. That’s a way you can be defensive but also stay on the offense.”

Hamlin finished 20th in the COVID-19 rescheduled first Cup race on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile oval in July. Today’s 334-lap/501-miler will air on NBC Sports Network at 3 p.m., EDT. Alternative coverage will be provided by Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Hamlin is bidding to advance to the Championship 4 for the third time in his career while spending much of his free time answering questions about and organizing 23XI Racing. Pronounced twenty-three eleven, the name honors Jordan’s jersey number with the Chicago Bulls and Hamlin’s car number with JGR. Hamlin insisted he never has run from the distractions created by his racing life. 

“Regardless of the race team, I’ve been trying to find distractions for years in the Playoffs,” said Hamlin, who has three wins in 29 Cup starts at TMS. “I think that it’s a benefit to have distractions because you don’t overconsume yourself with what-ifs and you end up second-guessing yourself.

“I have the same preparation that I had for the fifth race of the season that I had this weekend. I don’t change anything. If anything during the Playoffs, I try to golf more. I’ll just do anything I can to be normal. I don’t really designate any time differently or try to weed-out distractions. Distractions, for me, are a good thing, not a negative.”

The pairing of a high-profile black majority team-owner with Cup’s only black driver at 23XI Racing has generated renewed interest in NASCAR’s diversity initiative. Hamlin sees his role developing while still in the cockpit and once he retires. Hamlin joked the latter will occur “way down the line, let’s be clear on that.”

In the interim, Hamlin said he has the perfect business mentor in Joe Gibbs.

“I eventually want to build a race shop, so I’m getting all of those notes together,” Hamlin said. “JGR is a huge asset to getting us ready. Our team is a little different than some of those out there _the alliances that are running out of their race shop, it’s essentially just another car of theirs. This is an independent team. This team is doing its own thing. We want to do it the right way.

“I have big goals for this team. I want by middle of next year people from top organizations saying, ‘I want to go work there. That team is up-and-coming, and that team is growing. It’s going to build a world-class facility; this is where I want to go work.’

“I will lean on every asset that I have and one of those is Joe Gibbs, Coy (Gibbs), the engineers at JGR. I’m picking their brain on where this sport is going and what do I need to be prepared for going forward. So yeah, I’m using all of the assets that I’ve got.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 25 2020
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