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Denny Hamlin interview: When performance drops, so does my mood

Geoff Burke

Our series of NASCAR driver interviews is a special edition this week: 11 Questions with Denny Hamlin (instead of 12), since Hamlin's No. 11 car is racing in Phoenix on 11/11. Hamlin, a championship contender until two weeks ago, spoke with us at Texas.

SBN: What was your first-ever win in any form of motorsports?

DH: My very first go-kart race, when I was 7. I was at Capital City Speedway (in Richmond, Va.). I really didn't know what the flags meant, so when they threw the checkered, I just kept on going until my parents flagged me down and told me I won the race.

SBN: How'd you win in your first time out? Had you practiced a lot?

DH: I was good. (Smiles)

SBN: Who is a clean driver you enjoy racing with in the Sprint Cup Series?

DH: Probably Matt Kenseth.

SBN: Any reason?

DH: I think there's just mutual respect. He races me very clean and doesn't hold me up when I'm faster – and I try to do the same to him.

SBN: On the opposite side of that, is there anyone who seems to make it especially hard on you?

DH: Probably AJ Allmendinger. He's probably the toughest. Marcos Ambrose also. Those are two guys who don't really drive me rough or dirty or anything like that, they just make it harder.

A lot of the reason they make it harder is they drive in the corner so deep, you're scared when they're behind you – because they'll run into you – or you just can't get position on them because they drive in so far.

SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?

DH: The first half of the race, when a guy catches you and has passed multiple cars to get to you, it's just a matter of time (before he passes). All you're going to do by holding him up is increase the risk of you and him getting in a wreck together when you're racing real hard.

But after halfway? Your give-and-take level starts to back down a little bit. I'd say pretty much anything is fair game.

SBN: Do you keep a mental list of people you owe for on-track payback?

DH: Yeah, pretty much. You don't get back at 'em by wrecking 'em, you just race 'em extra hard. You race 'em like they race you. If I kept a mental list, I would have wrecked just about everyone by now.

SBN: So it's not a mental list for retaliation, necessarily, but just a list of guys you won't cut a break to?

DH: Yeah, you just make their lives harder for a little while.

SBN: If you could turn back time and be on the same team with someone who no longer races, who would you want to be teammates with?

DH: Probably David Pearson. I just like his style of driving and his attitude toward racing. Him and probably Junior Johnson. Kind of the same thing, the attitude they had. And maybe Ned Jarrett, too. Ned, to me, is like the Matt Kenseth of today's world. Junior Johnson reminds me of like Tony (Stewart) today.

SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about anything?

DH: I'd say most qualifying sessions in the Chase are about the only times I get nervous, because qualifying is so important. A lot of times, when you're fast in practice, you have to live back up to those expectations in actual qualifying. But other than that, that's about it.

SBN: You guys meet a ton of fans, and sometimes they can ask awkward or uncomfortable questions. Do you have any recent stories along those lines?

DH: The worst for me is like when someone wants me to talk on the phone to somebody who isn't there. I have a hard time making it work. I don't know, it's just the awkwardness of having to speak and have a conversation with someone who you don't know and isn't there.

I don't like talking on the phone anyway – just ask my parents – so doing it with a stranger is much harder.

SBN: So what do you say? "Hey, this is Denny?"

DH: "Hey, how are you? Uh...I appreciate the support. Here's your friend back."

SBN: If you had to choose one of these jobs when you retire someday, would you rather be a NASCAR broadcaster or high-ranking NASCAR official like John Darby or Robin Pemberton?

DH: Hmm...I'd say probably a Pemberton-type guy. Broadcasting, I don't know if I could do that. Guys like Pemberton, I'd like the challenge of leveling the playing field but allowing innovation in the sport, things like that. I'd like that a lot more.

SBN: I've been asking each driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Michael McDowell and his question was: "Who are you without NASCAR?" So if you take away the racing, who is Denny Hamlin?

DH: I'd say I'm moody, I'd say I'm temperamental. But within my certain group of friends and family, I'm very open and outgoing and joke around a lot. What people don't realize is they mistake my shyness for cockiness most of the time.

SBN: Why are you moody?

DH: I just constantly judge myself based off my performance. When performance isn't good, I let it bring everything down.

SBN: And finally, do you have a question for the next interview?

DH: If you had to pick any job other than racing, what would it be? If you could work anywhere, where would you work?