The Chase driver portion of our weekly interview series concludes this week with the man who leads the Sprint Cup Series point standings with two races to go: Denny Hamlin. Heading into Phoenix, Hamlin is ahead of four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson by 33 points and is clear of third-place Kevin Harvick by 59.
What's the best race you've ever driven?
DH: I'd say probably Martinsville this year, in the spring. Being ninth with five laps to go is not an easy thing to overcome in your head after you've been dominating all day. For me, it was pretty gratifying to win one that way. Most of the times when I win, it's not flashy or anything like that.
Who do you think is the most talented driver in NASCAR?
DH: (thinks for awhile) I'd probably say Tony Stewart. He's been successful in every type of car he's been in. It doesn't matter whether it's a dirt car, IndyCar or stock car – he's won championships and been good at it.
What's the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph during the race weekend?
DH: I would just say walking through the garage and whatnot. I try to get everyone I can. There's nobody I really turn away unless I'm late – which happens quite a bit. For me, walking through the garage is the best time. That's how it used to be done, anyway.
What's something fans may not know or understand about you?
DH: I would say a lot of people think I'm too serious at times, but actually I feel like I'm the opposite away from the camera and everything. I feel like I have a good time, but you rarely see pictures of me in the garage with a smile on my face, even though I am happy. I guess I just don't always show it.
If you were in charge of NASCAR, what's one thing you'd change?
DH: I would probably change the length of the season. I feel like it's too long. It's oversaturated – there are so many races that the fans have too many options. If you had 25 races or 20 races, something like that, there'd be more of a demand for the race ticket. I think you'd probably see better racing because of it, too, honestly. Because the less chances we have to get wins, the more aggressive we're going to be.
Who is one driver you'd recommend learning from and one you wouldn't?
DH: I would probably say to learn from Jimmie. I feel like he's done a good job of balancing being a clean driver and being an aggressive driver. He's got that art down pretty good.
Who not to learn from? I would say maybe some of the open-wheel guys. I've noticed guys like AJ (Allmendinger) and Sam (Hornish) just try to get too much out of their cars at times. They really push their stuff to the limit and don't always make it to the end because of it.
Who is the driver you most admire outside of NASCAR?
DH: I would say Eddie Johnson from Richmond, Virginia. He was one of the best short-track drivers I've ever seen. We used to watch him at Southside Speedway when I was a kid. He'd let guys pass him at the beginning of the race, and when they'd wear everything out, he'd just come to the front – and he'd win all the time.
To me, I kind of still use those techniques today because of watching him win races. He would just be ultra-conservative and patient, just saving his car. And really, his character as well is something I admire.
How long would you like your career to last?
DH: I'd say probably until I'm 37 or 38 years old. There's too much that I'd like to do outside of racing to do this until I'm 50 or whatever. As bad as this sounds, Brian Vickers would probably tell you it was a blessing in disguise for him (to be sidelined for much of the year) – there's not many times when you can take a time-out in the middle of your career, go do things you've been wanting to do while you're still young and can do them, and be able to come back to the sport.
I'm a little jealous of him in that sense, where I wish I could just take one year off – and then maybe I'd be driving until I was 50. For me, if I'm going to have to do it for the next 10 straight years, that'd be about it.
What's the first thing you do when you get home after a long race weekend?
DH: I'll go back and watch the race immediately (on DVR) – no matter if it's a good race or a bad race for me. I'll watch it immediately while everything is fresh in my mind. I'll make mental notes of how I could be better next time I get back to that racetrack. Really, video has been the best tool I've had over the last four years.
I'll pay attention to how fast certain lines came in. (I'll ask myself), 'Why did I not go on this restart?' 'How much room did I have here or there?' That way, when I look up in the (rear-view) mirror and say, ‘Man, that's a tight space,' I'll look on TV and I'll realize I had plenty of room. So I just use those tools for the future.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
DH: Well, I gotta think about who's still going to be here (laughs).Guys like Jeff (Gordon) and Tony, you never know with those guys. They could probably up and leave any time they wanted to. I don't know. It's hard for me to say it'd be anybody different than the group who's battling right now. We don't have much up-and-coming talent in the wings that's getting ready to come up, you know what I mean?
You'd like to say Joey Logano or somebody like that, but I feel like everyone's going to say that answer, simply because he's really the only new, fresh guy in here that's shown he could potentially run up front every single week. If I had to throw somebody into the mix other than the five, six guys that are up there every single year, Joey would be in there.
Are there any race-day routines you always follow?
DH: I like to make sure I eat as soon as the drivers meeting is over. Then I like to take at least a 15-minute nap or so before the race starts, just to kind of get refreshed. That's something I try to do every time.
Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?
DH: Probably a great person. I feel like if you're respected by your peers, that's worth way more than any trophy that you have. There's a lot of great drivers out here, but there's only so many great people out here. Especially in this sport.