Feb 14, 2014, 3:42 PM EDT
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.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski
Sep 30, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
“Driver 88″ discusses his performance issues in the Challenger Round with NASCAR AMERICA’s Rick Allen.
Sep 30, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
How do you prepare for two races and then a free-for-all at Talladega? Rick Allen and Kyle Petty of NASCAR AMERICA discuss.
Sep 30, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT
Also: Crew chief in same series fined, put on probation for car weight issue from last weekend at Dover.
Sep 30, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
Williams’ gap on Ferrari for third in the Constructors’ Championship is down to nine points going into this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Sep 30, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
Also coming up today: A closer look at the Contender Round tracks and who’s been successful at them; Joe Gibbs Racing focusing on continued momentum at Kansas; more radio goodness with the Dover Chase edition of “Scan All 43.”
Sep 30, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
Sixteenth in the 2014 IndyCar season was rookie Mikhail Aleshin, ever the fighter.
Sep 30, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT
Agag hopes for “three or four different makers of motors and batteries” during F-E’s second season.
Sep 30, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
P15 caps a difficult IndyCar season for Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing.
Sep 30, 2014, 2:47 PM EDT
The son of two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie will race the upcoming NNS events at Kansas, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead.
Sep 30, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT
Charlie Kimball fights through an OK, but often challenging, 2014 season en route to P14 into the IndyCar standings.
Sep 30, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT
20 multicultural and female drivers from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and South America will seek to earn a spot in the D4D’s Class of 2015.
Sep 30, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT
“The Mayor” has now apparently become The Minister.
Sep 30, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
A busy day for members of two IndyCar teams, as Penske and CFH drivers head to New Jersey and Mid-Ohio, respectively.
Sep 30, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Two years ago, Kamui Kobayashi stood on an F1 podium in his home country, with Sauber. It seems so long ago, now.
Sep 30, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Some of the stats of note as we head into the Japanese Grand Prix.
Sep 30, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Honda has Ryan Hunter-Reay, but losing Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden are big blows from marketing and on-track standpoints.
Sep 29, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT
More comments from Stewart’s press conference on Monday in North Carolina.
Sep 29, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT
Instead of racing to protect his position in the Chase, Jeff Gordon went into attack mode Sunday at Dover – and it paid off with a win. Check out his Victory Lane interview with NASCAR AMERICA’s Kelli Stavast here.
Sep 29, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
All the notes and numbers to keep in mind as the Contender Round begins on Kansas’ 1.5-mile oval.
Sep 29, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT
Coming up: Highlights from the first cut race of the Chase; reports on Kevin Harvick’s tire failure and Hendrick Motorsports; Tony Stewart speaks about trying to carry on after his involvement in a fatal sprint car accident.
Video from NASCAR America
- NASCAR AMERICA: Dale Earnhardt Jr. aims for better results in Chase (VIDEO) 0
- NASCAR AMERICA: Jeff Gordon, 24 team make statement at Dover (VIDEO) 0
- Weekend wrap-up: Was first Chase elimination race an exciting one? 0
- Tony Stewart speaks, cites overwhelming support in the search of return to normalcy 15
- Simon Pagenaud confirmed at Team Penske in fourth IndyCar 3
- Jeff Gordon advances to next round of Chase with first Dover victory since 2001 6
- Open letter from Kevin Ward Jr.’s aunt questions Tony Stewart, evidence of marijuana in nephew’s system 52