Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was made available to media after winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway on Saturday:
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota Camry TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing
Has Tyler Reddick helped elevated Toyota at the road courses?
“He has. I think he certainly exposed me and my lack of skills (laughter) and knew he would. You always want people that challenge you to be better and when Tyler (Reddick) came over here this year, we knew that he was going to be the bar that we were going to have to set ourselves against. When I go to COTA, and I’m in the simulator and well more than a second slower than he is, I just think about how many road course we have left and how can I cut that down by the time we get to Sonoma? How can I cut it down by the time I get to Chicago? There are different ways, it is a process. You are not just going to wake up overnight and be better. You have to see examples to understand. You have to drive the same car that they are driving. I think, while Tyler helped a lot, I have to give credit to 23XI for really helping me quite a bit this week as well.”
It looked like the third lap was the fastest on tires. Was that surprising to you?
“It was. He would say otherwise, but Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) was trying to get me unbuckled after our last lap in the final round. He was like ‘that’s a good day, that’s a good starting spot.’ I just asked him ‘you don’t want me to try again? Maybe I could do it.’ I’m glad we did try again. The good things that we saw about the tires was they had a big fall off after a certain number of laps. I thought I saw two seconds or more after 10 laps, which is really good because it is going to allow us – tires are going to matter, your pit strategy will matter. All that basically means is we didn’t do a good job on our earlier laps, and none of us really professional road course racers. We don’t do it all of the time. There are certainly those that are better than others, but if you can go right back out and run faster, it just means that you didn’t optimize or do a good enough job your first time out.”
Where do you feel like NASCAR is at when it comes to safety?
“Charlotte was my first true head-on impact. I don’t know that we had those changes in the car for that, but I thought certainly it had some room for improvement. We all knew that it had room for improvement. This is just kind of the evolution process of the Next Gen. It is just going to take time to get it all right from a competition and safety perspective. I don’t think we did enough proper testing with it before we unveiled it, but it is good to see that changes are getting made. I think we are all confident – especially with the transparency that they are showing – with the safety stuff. Here are the videos, here is how it was, here is how it is going to change. The only difference is – what is the cause and the effect. There is always an effect. As the team owners, that just means that we are going to damage more products and it is going to cost us a ton more money, but the safety of the drivers is the first and foremost thing and we will figure out the rest.”
Can you describe the evolution of Toyota in one year on the road courses?
“I think that Tyler (Reddick) is an element of it, but certainly, I think our cars are better. Last year, we were at a pretty big disadvantage at tracks like this, which disadvantage here, gave us an advantage at other tracks. When the cars are so close, when one has an aerodynamic advantage at one spot over another, it is going to be great for one track and bad for another. The way we developed our car was really made to have a big spoiler on it, and when NASCAR and the drivers wanted to reduce the downforce, it made it to where our cars weren’t that good. We got to revamp that this year, and certainly, the whole package it put together more for the Toyotas and that is what you are seeing.”
What is your reaction to the final decision on the Austin Dillon/Austin Cindric incident and what is your thoughts on using SMT data to make decisions on penalties?
“I think you can’t ignore evidence – that is just crazy. If someone is going to have a race suspension, you have look at all of the evidence. I think they have looked at SMT in the past, it was just not as public as it is now. I agree – it was a very 50/50 thing, and did it warrant a suspension? Probably not, even though it looked a little iffy to me, because, in my opinion, I looked at the whole scenario. Let’s go back three laps and see if he was mad or not. He was definitely mad. Well then you have to look at intent. Is it pre-meditated or not?
But you can’t really know intent, right? NASCAR doesn’t like to get into intent.
“Trust me, they like to get into intent, for sure (laughter). That all matters. In the end, I think they made the right call in the end. I hadn’t looked at it until I was right there on the microphone and looking at it – and I was like, what is he doing turning left there, but if you look, it was so 50/50. It really was and Austin (Dillon) came up a little bit, so you could go either way with it, and I’m glad that they hedged on the side of not making a call when it’s that close. When it’s a different situation and it’s more egregious and obvious, absolutely, keep doing what they are doing.”
Does qualifying on the pole change your pit strategy?
“It’s going to be a factor for sure. It’s up to me to execute good laps and stay up front. That is going to be the biggest thing – is making sure that I can keep it on track and keep executing laps like I know how to do. With no stage breaks, it allows us to determine our own pit strategy. We are not chasing someone, hopefully. Now if we are, if we get passed by a few cars early, it’s up to us to do a strategy that keeps us in the race, but now you are not having to give up stage points to flip stages which is good. I think it is an opportunity for us to come out of here with a pretty good points day, if the driver doesn’t make mistakes.”
Do you think by NASCAR showing off the illegal parts will affect how teams move forward on finding speed?
“I mean, you listen, I think this is a good thing. Exposing, and kind of the public shaming, should be a deterrent. From what I saw, you almost have to think that was a mistake or just lack of judgement, for sure. But either way, it is not right. He shows you that it doesn’t fit the template, so it just doesn’t fly with us. I think it is good to be transparent. The things that NASCAR is doing to be more transparent on the safety stuff and the technical stuff I think is all good. It is storylines, right? We are all talking about – hey, did you see that or not? It’s good for our sport and educates our fans, so I think it is a good thing.”
Have you been working with Bubba Wallace on positivity and moving forward?
“I think a lot of that comes from results as well. I think he is a result person and that he is capable of winning, and he’s got the confidence now that he is capable of being a successful driver in this series. So even when you have bad weeks like you did last week, you have a failure at the end, he was still competitive enough, and in the top-10 to understand that, I’m with a really good team, and that team is general is really working well at improving. I think that is what we are seeing. Certainly, they helped me this week. I’m just really happy of where he is at, and the progression he’s made.”
Does having speed today give you optimism for the Chicago Street Course or Indianapolis?
“More so for Indy than the Chicago Street Course. I think that will be a challenge for me personally, but it is just going to come down to reps. How many reps can I get before I get there? That will kind of dictate, I think, how successful I am at that track, but I think generally speaking, this is a track where I felt like the bulk of my time, I thought I’ve been missing has been in three corners. I just worked on those and got better. When we go to Chicago, I’m learning a whole new racetrack. I’m probably going to be a little bit off everywhere. I think it is just going to take more work to learn it and figure out how I can be better.”
Have you done sim or iRacing for the Chicago Street Course?
“iRacing, but not sim yet.”
What three corners did you work on?
“I can’t say that. That’s propriety information.”
Do you feel like Bubba Wallace has arrived as a weekly contender?
“He doesn’t need to win. He just needs to keep doing what he’s done the last month and a half. If you could have listened to what we were talking about on our ownership calls, on what is the strategy to get the 23 in the playoffs, it was just kind of, let’s everyone take a breath here and let’s see how this goes for the next month and a half before we start changing our strategy, and then he goes on a run of top-fives and top-10s. I think consistency still pays, not only to get in the playoffs, but once you are in it. I think contender is probably the right and correct word for him. I think he was a participant for a while, and now he is a contender, week-in and week-out. That’s what we wanted and what we expected, and that is what he is delivering.”
Is he driving differently or are there other changes?
“It’s a lot. There is a lot of different aspects to being successful, and it is not all about driver skill. It’s managing races, it’s being a leader with your team. There is just so much that goes into it – to being successful for sure. I’m not here to spill all of the secret sauce, because it is so hard to be competitive in this league, you want to keep those things to yourself.”