Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Denny Hamlin, who heads to Martinsville this weekend as one of the favorites to win at what might be his best track. Hamlin spoke with us recently at Charlotte.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
DH: I'm the most underrated driver.
SBN: Why do you say that? People don't give you enough credit?
DH: I kind of had a tiff with Darrell Waltrip at the beginning of the year. All I ever heard about was the 11 car was a couple wins away from being the most winning car number. Given I'm in a very elite group when it comes to that – I look at the drivers who raced it before me, and Darrell definitely had his fair share of wins in it. But I never felt like Darrell gave me very much credit, you know?
Up until this year, when a lot of things were out of my control – the DNFs, things like that – you look beyond that, and my stats are as good as anyone in the first five years of their career. Up until this year, me and Kyle Busch were separated by two wins – he's been in the sport one year longer than me. But he's known as the guy that wins everything.
So I don't necessarily think we get the notoriety that we deserve. You look at our win percentage and things like that – and given, this year has been tough on that – and we've done pretty well for ourselves. Yet we're considered by many, I think, as a middle-of-the-road team.
SBN: What's a race in your career that you didn't win and it still bugs you because you lost?
DH: It would probably be Bristol, in the very first race with the COT (in 2007). I was leading with 10 to go, and there was a wreck. I checked up for the wreck and Kyle didn't – of course – and he passed me. And he went on to win the race.
SBN: So you just feel like you shouldn't have checked up?
DH: Yeah, I should have kept going. But, really, I just want to win at Bristol so bad.
SBN: If you could be on a four-car Sprint Cup Series team and pick your teammates – but not Kyle or Joey Logano – who would you pick?
DH: I'd say probably Carl (Edwards), Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff Gordon.
SBN: What's your reasoning?
DH: I feel like those are guys who all bring a lot to the table and are good at certain things. The 48 and the 99 have very similar driving styles, so I would kind of balance information off them to try to learn what they look for. And the 24, I think is exceptionally good on the shorter tracks – similar to what I am – and he's got a different approach, but he's still fast.
So I'd try to blend all those together to become the ultimate driver.
SBN: What driver did you want to model yourself after when you were growing up?
DH: I'd say probably Matt Kenseth. I think my style is very similar to his in the sense I'm a bit more passive on the racetrack, I guess you could say. He was a guy that, until last year, never won a ton of races but was just ultra-consistent. And that's what I was for the first four years of my career – I was the guy who was always just there and solid, every week. He never tore up a lot of equipment, so I was like, 'You know, that's a guy I would like to model myself after.'
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport after a race?
DH: Hmm...we've had to run over cones and things like that before. Oh, Chicago...
SBN: What happened there?
DH: They have a thing when you go out of Chicago where they make you turn left or right – and we wanted to go dead straight. We went straight and the cop (stopped the car and) said, 'Pull your ass over and you sit here!' So we were sitting there and sitting there and he just would not release us because he was pissed that we did not go left or right and we disobeyed his orders.
Finally, we sweet-talked him and he finally let us go. But that was about the edgiest escape that we've had. I thought we could possibly have to go to jail.
SBN: Who is somebody famous who you'd like to meet that you have not met yet?
DH: I'd actually like to meet Jim Cramer (of CNBC's Mad Money). He's just an interesting guy, you know? He's obviously very, very smart as far as how the world runs and everything, but he's also a huge sports guy. So I find him very funny and interesting. He'd be a guy I'd want to sit down and talk to for 15 minutes.
SBN: Yeah. And get some stock tips.
DH: Absolutely. For sure, for sure.
SBN: So when did you get so interested in the stock market?
DH: Probably about two months ago when the market crashed. I said, 'Man, this would be a good time to learn.' To be honest with you, I've never read so much my entire life. I never liked reading books or reading anything – I'm a pictures guy. But I've read and read and read these last two months.
We're in these motorhomes so much, you can only watch so much sports. I needed a new hobby to mess around with during the weekends. So I just started reading to kind of catch up on what's going on in the world – because I really had no idea.
All I would do is meet with my financial advisors once every six months and be like, 'Well how come things did this?' or 'How come this six months was better?' I never knew what was actually going on in the world that affected stock markets or the way we pay taxes or things like that. So I kind of got more in tune with what's going on with our leadership.
SBN: Last year, there were two different types of seasons – Jamie McMurray won some huge races but missed the Chase; Jeff Gordon made the Chase but didn't win any races or the championship. If you had to choose for yourself, what would you want?
DH: I'd rather win the races. I think those crown jewel accomplishments will live on with you forever. Running mediocre for an entire season will be a completely forgotten season.
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from? Why do you want to win so badly?
DH: I feel like I'm the most competitive driver in the motorhome lot. No matter what it is – whether we're racing, playing another sport or deciding who can run to that sign and back faster – I feel like I'm the most competitive person alive.
It gets the best of me sometimes, because it makes me very hard on myself when I don't achieve the goals I want to achieve. But I feel like that's what makes me as good as I am at times – I push myself to be better, constantly.
SBN: How much does your personality change from when you're sitting here talking to me and when you're inside the car racing?
DH: Probably completely different. Back when I was racing go-karts, I would be a complete jokester. I'd crack up with the guys around me, I just was horsing around with everyone. But as soon as we got our go-karts to the grid and I put on my helmet, my daddy always used tell me, 'You turn into a completely different person.'
I still do that today. I can spend the hour before the race here cracking up with all my friends and joking around, but as soon as I get around that race car, I completely change. The focus changes. The competitive juices get flowing.
SBN: If you could switch lives with another athlete from a different sport, who would you want to be?
DH: You wouldn't believe who I'm going to say – Floyyyyyd Mayweather!
SBN: No way. Come on!
DH: He works once or twice a year! Other than 10 weeks of training before a fight...
SBN: But boxers get their asses kicked!
DH: Hey, if I'm going to trade lives, I'm going to be him! So I'm not gonna be taking any punches, I'm gonna be giving 'em!
He's dominated his sport for 15 years. He'd be the guy I'd trade places with. The monetary compensation versus actual workload is a great ratio in his business.
SBN: Yeah, I would guess that ratio has got to be the best out of any sport.
DH (puts hands up as if to indicate he's won the argument): If I'm going to switch, that's who I'm going to switch with.
SBN: You actually inspired this next one in the 12 Questions we did last year, but I'll ask you anyway. If you could take a year away from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted but come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you ever want to do that?
DH: I would definitely take a year off, for sure. At this point in our sport and where it's at, it wouldn't happen. Three or four years ago, you could probably be like Mark Martin and kind of come and go as you wish. But yeah, there's plenty of things I want to do, other than racing.
I can assure you that most of the drivers in here have a lot of things they'd like to do, but racing keeps them from doing that. Any hobbies, traveling – we're so restricted because of our long season. We have a one-and-a-half-month period where we get to do what we want – that's shorter than any other sport. It makes it tough, for sure.
SBN: When you eventually quit racing someday, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?
DH: I always said when I was in Late Models, all I ever wanted was when I pull out on the racetrack, people feel like I'm the guy to beat. Last year, that was the case. It's an amazing confidence boost when you have that swagger of knowing when you pull on the racetrack, all eyes are on you because they know you're the best.
So as far as a career legacy, I just want to be known as the guy everyone had to watch for, constantly. Like, 'If you're going to beat 'em, that's the guy to beat.' There were some Late Model racers back in the day that we knew were going to be tough to beat when they showed up. That's the feeling I'd like to have.
SBN: This might be sensitive given what happened at Homestead last year, but let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather have it wrapped up after Phoenix or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap of the season at Homestead?
DH: I think off Turn 4 of the last lap would be better. I think in my position, it would especially be sweeter because we faltered at the end of last year. Winning it on the last lap would kind of redeem ourselves from that collapse. In my opinion, you want to win it in exciting fashion.