Feb 14, 2014, 3:42 PM EST
When the green flag drops to start the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, it’ll be 98 days and 290 miles between races for Denny Hamlin.
But even with the time lapse and the distance between Hamlin’s 2013 season-ending win at Homestead Miami Speedway and the 2014 Sprint Cup season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the Virginia native still feels like it was just yesterday that he took home the checkered flag.
And even with the layoff, Hamlin still feels like he has the best momentum of pretty much any fellow competitor coming into this year’s 500, based upon how he ended the most difficult year of his career at Homestead.
“Homestead, for me, made me believe that it’s possible, that if I get back healthy, this is the kind of results we can expect and this is how I should expect to run,” Hamlin told MotorSportsTalk. “So, not that Homestead made me change how hard I worked in the gym this off-season, but it definitely motivated me to know that if I’m feeling good, I’m going to be running good.”
There’s no denying how difficult and frustrating last season was for Hamlin. He was in the worst wreck of his career, forced to miss the next four races as a result of the back injury he sustained in a head-on crash into a unpadded retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway last March.
“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said.
To say Hamlin is more cerebral coming into 2014 is not a stretch. Up until last season, he relied more so on his talent to lead him behind the wheel. But now, he’s much more of a thinking man’s driver.
“What I take from it the most, I would say, would be just the appreciation of when you do run well,” he said. “I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy, really didn’t have to prepare for it. I just showed up and we did it.
“With the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good, you can’t just rely on talent to do it. “It’s looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better?”
Just putting the pedal to the metal won’t get it done anymore, Hamlin acknowledges. And what’s brought about the biggest change in him has nothing to do with Denny the race car driver, but more so Denny the man.
“I had a daughter, that helped a lot,” Hamlin said. “One thing’s for sure, as crappy as my weekends were week in and week out, it lasted as long as the plane ride home. That helped a ton.
“Those two events, having a daughter and having to sit out a few races, made me probably change my outlook more than anything has in the eight years that I’ve been in the Cup series on getting through those bad weeks and getting to the good ones and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Those two things have changed the way I think about my job and what I have to do and hopefully it’s all for the good and shows up in 2014.”
Hamlin ultimately finished 2013 in 23rd place, which in and of itself is pretty significant. Sure, it was the worst finish of his Sprint Cup career, but he still managed to do so in just 32 races, compiling the win at Homestead, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes.
There were a number of critics that implored Hamlin to sit out the rest of the season and recuperate from the serious compression fracture he suffered at Fontana, that he needed complete rest and he was in effect hurting both himself and his team by playing hurt.
To his credit, Hamlin turned a deaf ear to the naysayers. And while admittedly his performance suffered, particularly in the middle of the season, he persevered and tuned out both his critics and the pain.
But no medicine could have made Hamlin feel better than the win at Homestead. Sure, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship the same day, but Hamlin got exactly the kind of dose he needed: to go out a winner and build upon that momentum going into 2014.
“As the season got further towards the end, I started feeling better and better, and our performance just really started going with it,” he said. “Hopefully, my results (in 2014) go with all the hard work I’ve put in because I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that I’m well for this year. I don’t want to be the weak link, like I was during the summer, I feel like, for our team.”
So with the season opener now less than 10 days away, how is Hamlin feeling?
“I haven’t had anything, really,” he said when asked if he’s had any lingering pain. “Everything’s been good. I just feel so much stronger than I have been, so it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I think that really everything’s roses from here on out and we’ll see how it goes.”
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Jan 25, 2015, 6:27 AM EST
Sunday has dawned at the 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Jan 25, 2015, 2:10 AM EST
An early mistake from Ken Roczen shuffled him to the back of the field and resulted in him giving up the points lead.
Jan 25, 2015, 1:55 AM EST
Cooper Webb retained the points lead in the 250 Class but had some pointed words for Tyler Bowers after the race.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:10 PM EST
The 53rd Rolex 24 at Daytona is now underway.
Jan 24, 2015, 10:50 PM EST
UPDATED: A pair of disqualifications involving two of Abreu’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series East teammates elevate the Chili Bowl champion to a 13th place finish.
Jan 24, 2015, 7:06 PM EST
Coon will work on MRN Radio’s live qualifying and race broadcasts in 2015.
Jan 24, 2015, 5:23 PM EST
Since resigning from Ferrari last fall, Montezemolo has taken over as CEO of an Italian airline and joined the board of directors for F1’s controlling shareholder.
Jan 24, 2015, 3:08 PM EST
Vets-Help hopes to not only host disabled veterans’ races at the track, but also build a residential complex and rehab center for vets and soldiers returning from war.
Jan 24, 2015, 1:37 PM EST
Former team competition director alleges that KBM owes him bonus money and commissions from a pair of sponsorships he says he helped get for the team.
Jan 24, 2015, 12:39 PM EST
The reigning World Champ and aspiring R&B singer aligns with London PR firm that’s home to some of the world’s most popular musicians.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:32 AM EST
NASCAR driver Jamie McMurray loves everything about racing sports cars, especially in this week’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, except for one thing — the noise.
Jan 24, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
Against the odds, the key storyline heading into today’s Rolex 24 at Daytona is a P2 convert going up against DP teams for the overall win.
Jan 23, 2015, 8:16 PM EST
At 707 horsepower, the last thing anyone would likely think is that a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat would lose a drag race to … an all-electric Tesla. But it’s true, sadly for Mopar fans.
Jan 23, 2015, 7:45 PM EST
The NASCAR team owner talks about his initial reaction to Gordon’s retirement decision, Gordon’s impact on the sport, and what his team’s plans are for after 2015.
Jan 23, 2015, 7:13 PM EST
On Friday, the NASCAR America crew discussed potential candidates to inherit the No. 24 car with 2015 being Jeff Gordon’s final season. One interesting name came up, that of Kyle Larson.
Jan 23, 2015, 6:34 PM EST
Victory Motorcycles will compete for the first time in the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class in 2015, with husband and wife team Matt and Angie Smith heading up the effort.
Jan 23, 2015, 6:22 PM EST
Rex White, to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next Friday, wasn’t just a great driver, he’s also a great storyteller. We share some of his best tales with MST readers.
Jan 23, 2015, 5:48 PM EST
Gordon has left the door open to competing in other series when his full-time Sprint Cup career ends this fall.
Jan 23, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
The four-time Sprint Cup champion isn’t the only NASCAR driver that’s gotten rich in the last two decades or so.
WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA, 5 p.m. ET – More on Jeff Gordon’s decision; interviews with Hendrick, Hornish
Jan 23, 2015, 4:30 PM EST
Also coming up today: Breaking down offseason moves from Petty, Stewart-Haas teams; looking back on an ‘Awesome’ 1985 Daytona 500; the Top-5 moments from the 2014 Chase.
Video from NASCAR America
- Rex White, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver — and storyteller 1
- Is a NASCAR TV analyst career in Jeff Gordon’s future? ‘I’d entertain it’ 2
- After wedding and winter to reflect, Joey Logano looks for more in 2015 2
- Jeff Gordon’s legacy of success transcends generations 1
- Jeff Gordon announces 2015 as final full-time season 43
- NASCAR: Trackside shopping set to change as part of new Fanatics deal (UPDATED) 10
- Brian Vickers to return to racing at Las Vegas after health scare 9