HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- A couple weeks back I got a phone call from Connecticut, during which I was charged with the task of climbing inside Denny Hamlin's noggin, knocking around and seeing if I could determine what drives him. He's a unique guy, unafraid to profess his excellence and predict his dominance in a sport where athletes traditionally take a deferential approach. He also doesn't hide his appreciation for the many benefits that come with success -- fame, wealth, the like.
As we sat together in his living room we took a broad-stroke view of his life, and he was, as usual, shockingly honest. The one prevailing theme that weaved throughout our conversation was the impact Hamlin's full-circle transformation -- from a simple, unassuming kid just trying to make it to a Cup Series winner who admittedly forgot who he was and alienated those who got him there, and back again -- has had on him, his family and those dear to him.
He is confident, and he is shy. That combination leads many folks, he says, to misconstrue him as arrogant.
He is supremely talented, and this season his maturation as a competitor caught up to his ability behind the wheel. Here is an excerpt of our hour-long discussion:
Marty Smith: You've come a long way in a hurry. Describe your path to here.
Denny Hamlin: It was a rocky road, for sure. The way I can think of it is it's almost like a rollercoaster ride. There were so many points in my career that [we asked] how much are we going to sacrifice for me to get to the Cup Series? What was it going to take? Was it going to take second-mortgaging the house? Selling every vehicle we had? Everything that it took to buy tires on a weekly basis to keep me going.
And so, it was a tough ride getting here and it really pulled on our family emotionally. Really. But I always say to people that say "I want to use your success story as motivation" I hate to tell people to go that route because it was such a hard time for our family when we didn't know if we were going to make it or not.
MS: What was rock bottom?
DH: Rock bottom is probably when we blew a motor in my Late Model car. We just barely had enough. We had cleared out the savings account to build a brand new Late Model for our team. It was a self-funded team. We sold trailers to put tires on a racecar each week, and we blew an engine. Engines were about $8,000, and a guy named Robin Roberts came up to us, he was a great friend of ours, and gave us the money to put a new engine in the car.
That was probably one of those points where, it was it. That was it for us. And we weren't going to make it. There's so many stories I can tell you, weeks after weeks of "this is the end" moments, and it just never got to the end.
MS: Knowing that, how long a shot are you to be that guy, only a handful of years ago, and now this close to winning a championship?
DH: It's surreal for me, for sure. There's times when I wake up in my motor home in the morning and I see my suit hanging there by the bed, and I look at it, and it has a Sprint Cup Series patch on it and it's like 'Really? I'm to that level?' I don't even remember "making it," I don't everything just happened so fast that I just woke up one day with the Sprint Cup Series patch on my suit. And next thing you know, I'm racing guys that I've been idolizing for so many years.
MS: When did you make it?
DH: For me, at the point I felt like I made it was in Phoenix in 2005. We got the pole in my third-ever start in the Cup Series, and it was like, from that point forward I knew that I could do it, I could compete with these guys on a weekly basis. So from that point, it just seemed like the confidence went through the roof.
MS: Describe your personality.
DH: I'm quiet. A lot of people mistake shyness with cockiness, but I really feel like I'm just a quiet person in general. I don't usually say a lot, especially around people I don't know that well. You always see me at the track, and I look at every picture they post on the Internet when it has something to do with the media, and it looks like I have a frown on my face, that I'm not happy. But I'm just thinking. I'm always thinking, constantly, when I'm at a racetrack of how I can be better.
MS: You discussed how you're quiet, and some people may misconstrue that as cockiness. How do you define confidence?
DH: Confidence, for me, is knowing what I have around me. I know that I have all the parts and pieces around me to be successful. And that's why when I go to a racetrack and I say "I expect to win this weekend," I'm not telling everyone that I'm better than them. I'm saying that with my ability, with my race team, with the people around me, there's no reason why I shouldn't win. If we didn't win, it's because I didn't give the best information that weekend, or I made a mistake, or we just missed a setup. But I know the potential for my race team and that's to finish first every week.
MS: It's interesting, though, because this is a sport where drivers who are aspiring and getting so close to being a champion typically defer that confidence to the guy who's The Man. You don't necessarily take that approach. You don't have any qualms saying "I'm gonna go beat that guy "
DH: I feel like I can beat him [Jimmie Johnson]. I feel like I have beat him. Over the last two or three seasons, I've been able to race with him toe-to-toe. Now, we've made more mistakes than he has, and it's shown worse in the points, wins columns, all that, but I feel like I've had what it takes to race the 48 toe-to-toe.
And last year, you know, I could very well be going for two in a row this year if just a few blown motors and a crash away from really having a chance. And sure everyone can say that and even the 48, but we really feel like we've had a lot of potential over the last few years and just have not capitalized on it.
And I said a couple years ago going into this season, I was sick of being the driver where they always say "the potential is this but here's really what's gonna happen." And so I wanted to be from a championship contender to a champion.
MS: You've evolved a lot as a driver over the last five years. How has your confidence evolved with your experience?
DH: Well, I've just come to realize that I can do it and I can do it at every single racetrack. What I didn't have over the last few years was the ability to go to every racetrack I went to, whether it be Texas, Watkins Glen or Bristol, and walk into that racetrack and say "I can win this week."
I used to have the mentality of, "OK, I can go to the short tracks and win this week, and we'll go to Texas next week -- I can run top-5." -- and that's not championship-caliber. That's not where our sport was based off of. It was based off of winning and winning everywhere. And that's why we have all these different racetracks. This year is the first year I feel like we've put all that together and I've walked into every racetrack thinking that I can win. And not faking it. Not just saying it to the media, "Yeah, I have all the confidence in the world, we should run good, we have a chance to win." A lot of people say that, but I don't think everyone believes that.
MS: That's the norm. That's what I'm saying -- everybody goes into the weekend saying the same thing, "oh man, I'm pretty confident here, I think we got a chance " No. You look in the camera and say "I'm gonna do this. I know I can and if I don't, it's on me."
DH: I feel like I need to take responsibility. I'm the reason that we've had success in the past and I'm the reason we've had failures in the past. And I put it on my shoulders. It's no different than a quarterback on a football team. We win as a team and lose as a team, but, ultimately, I'm the guy that's out there leading the team and if we don't succeed, it's on me.
MS: OK. That said, why, then, are you the guy to end Jimmie Johnson's dominance?
DH: I feel like the reason that I'm the best at this point is because I've put it all together. I've figured out what it takes to be successful on and off the racetrack. And I say off, because I think some of that boils over onto the racetrack. I figured out how to be better at bigger tracks, done a lot of research, asked a lot of questions to teammates -- I feel like I've done all the hard work and the homework that it takes to be the best at this particular sport.
And if my effort this year is not good enough, I guarantee you when I go next year in 2011, I'm gonna be a better driver than I was in 2010. And that's one thing I set out for myself four, five years ago -- I said when I start, every year I will be better than I was the previous year. I will not be stagnant.
MS: You said you put it all together and you figured it out. What is "it?"
DH: Worry about me. I've had, I've had a couple quotes on my dash saying "just do you" a couple times during this Chase. Especially I put those on the dash of the race cars in the races I know that may not be my best races, and it's easy for me to hit the panic button at those tracks. So I just worry about myself, get the best finish I can for myself, and I'm not gonna change how anyone else runs during that weekend. So just worry about myself and don't worry about anyone else and I'll always be successful no matter what.
MS: You made a declaration when you won Homestead last year in Victory Lane to me. Do you remember what it was?
DH: I do. And I can remember it like it was yesterday. And I was, I was so confident. I remember stepping out of that car at Homestead because that was my first mile-and-a-half win and immediately a light bulb went off. It was like, "you know what? I figured this out. I know how to win a Championship now."
And I said in Victory Lane, I said, "within the next two years, I'll be a champ." And I still stick by that. No matter what. If it's not this year, it'll be next year. But I just feel like I was championship-caliber, talent-wise, last year. But I didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle together like I did this year. And next year -- no matter what, championship or not, if I win it this year -- I'm gonna be better. And so, you know, I see my expectations just going higher.
MS: You have all that confidence when you leave Homestead last November. And then in January, you suffer the knee injury. What type of emotional setback was that for you?
DH: It was big. I didn't, I didn't realize how big of an injury this was or how it was going to affect me in the car as much until I had to experience it and go through it. You hear about it all the time and constantly see on TV the ACL injuries on this type of player, out for the season, and you think, "Oh, it's just like a broken bone? Once it's healed, it's done and you're ready to go." And it's not. It's the most painful thing I ever had to go through. Phoenix was hell. I, there's no way I should have been in that racecar. And it was just an immediate letdown that, OK, we started our season like crap -- we ran terrible, we were 20th in points or something -- and we make a decision to go ahead and get the surgery done and basically throw away our season.
For me that was tough. I remember having to walk into Martinsville's media center knowing I was about to tell all you guys that we were going to have this surgery and thinking, "This is it. I can see this on every news [station], you know, that I'm going to break down and say I'm sacrificing my season and we're going to move on to the next one." But, you know, just something went off. When I got out of that hospital and came home and started working on therapy it was like, it was almost like rebuilding myself. It really was. Through physical therapy I just had to think about it like racing -- trying to improve, get better than I was at the beginning. And so I just used it as motivation and two weeks later we're in Victory Lane at Texas.
MS: Let's go back to Phoenix before we get to Texas. By all means you could have got out of that thing and nobody would have said a word. What did you learn about yourself that night?
DH: I almost kind of didn't believe what went through my mind when, OK, when I got out of the racecar and we were done, I thought to myself, "Two years ago, I would have got out of this car without a doubt. Last year, I probably would have got out of the car without a doubt." But I just felt like I didn't have to force it, but the team leader in me just stepped up right there and said that no matter what, I don't care if I'm going to finish 30th -- I'm going to stay in this car and fight for y'all.
Because I guarantee you any one of those pit crew guys, anyone of the guys that work in the shop that work on my car, would have gave their knee for me that day. And so I was willing to do it for them. And it didn't matter what I had to go through, because I'm the one who put us in that situation and I had to be held responsible.
MS: What did Joe Gibbs Racing learn about you that night?
DH: I think, immediately, my commitment to the race team, and my commitment to the sport and everything, just immediately people didn't question, you know, was my heart in it? Because there were times throughout my career and we would have a bad race and I just would be south for two weeks, I'd be pissed off. And immediately I think people realized that I was in it. I was in deep with this race team and I wasn't going to go anywhere. You know, I can't tell you how many team guys that said how much they appreciated me staying in that car, because the easy way out was to hit the escape button.
MS: How hard is it to say what you really think in this sport?
DH: It's tough. I always joke around that when my career is over and it's long over, I'm going to write a book about everything that goes on outside of racing. I doubt it'd be a good idea and I'm not going to be Jose Canseco by any means, but for me, there's so much that goes on inside and outside this sport that people don't know about and it's so tough at times to hold your tongue and know that some things are not right. But you got to just bite your lip.
MS: I interviewed Tony Stewart in a very similar fashion last year and he's grown up a lot, too, being a team owner and whatnot, and he said "you know what? I don't really say what I think that much anymore, because the two weeks of mess that I have to clean up isn't worth the two minutes of satisfaction of saying what I think." Respond.
DH: Absolutely true. Without a doubt. Tony has been the first one to grab me and say, "Just shut the hell up sometimes! I said these same things and it ain't worth the mess when you gotta clean it up. I know this is screwed up, and I know that's screwed up, but you ain't gotta tell everyone!" And I just laugh and I think about that and it's like, Tony has probably been my father figure throughout my racing career and been closer to me as non-teammates as we were teammates. So if there's anyone I can learn example by, it's Tony. It's funny because immediately after I say something about NASCAR, he's the first to invite me over to the bus and say "Listen man, I've been through this. You're not gonna win, just shut up!" He's a good person to not always follow by example, but he's pretty wise.
MS: Especially with that diet you're trying to keep yourself on. Don't follow his.
DH: No. There was Burger King sitting on the counter so
MS: How much do you care what your peers think of you?
DH: A lot. Honestly, I'm not one of those guys that just goes out there and worries about myself and doesn't care about the respect of everyone else. Because I firmly believe and I found out my rookie season that any one of these guys can make your job hell if they want to. Any of them, if you piss them off. And for me, I don't want to have to go through that. So I race everyone with a lot of respect, I feel like, and on the racetrack I feel like I've been good to everyone and off the racetrack same thing.
You look at guys that maybe haven't accomplished as much as others, probably have as much or more respect than Jimmie Johnson does and he's won four straight. That's the balance in our sport and it's tough for people to always see what people's characters are like away from the racetrack, but there's a lot of good people in our sport and it's unfortunate that people kind of characterize people that get a bad rap at times.
MS: Let's talk Twitter. You had endeared yourself as this "man of the people" through Twitter. People loved it. NASCAR swoops in and slaps you on the wrist and your wallet -- what did you learn about how this thing works in that particular instance?
DH: It took a lot of meetings for me to understand how the public views NASCAR and what they think about our sport. I've really come to realize the negative comments, trying to critique NASCAR in certain ways, it didn't help. You see it in ratings, you see it in interest level and things like that, it really does affect our sport when drivers who are part of it are the first ones to go and bash it.
You don't see any other sport where the players are hacking off at the NFL. But it's like every week we continue to question their authority. That's their job. It's a judgment call because they're the experts, they make the best decision they can each and every week. And for me, I always looked at it like "How did it benefit me or how did it hurt me?" Not "how did it benefit or hurt the sport?" and that's something I didn't realize until this year.
MS: So, you've discussed how you've learned your lesson and that you have to be a little bit more tactful in your approach. But the one question that any fan would want to ask is, if you are passionate about something NASCAR has done, are you still willing to say it?
DH: It's not different than when I said weeks and months and years ago, that when someone asks me a question, I'm gonna give a 100 percent honest answer. It makes no difference if a fan asks me something at an autograph line -- "what do I think about this?" -- I'm going to say the truth. Now, am I gonna be a little bit more careful with how I'm gonna bring it across? For sure. Without a doubt. Because I know there's a bigger picture than just myself. I'm always gonna speak my mind, but it's just gonna be a little bit more tactful.
MS: Last week, you said something that really intrigued me. That Jimmie Johnson has influenced your career as much as anyone. Why?
DH: The way he's become champion has been the best I've ever seen. Without a doubt, he has respect from everyone on the racetrack -- sure he gets in scuffles here and there with guys, very minor stuff -- but he's always good at deflecting when he is faced with adversity or with a tough question that he's gotta come up with an honest answer, he does a good job of deflecting.
On the racetrack, I feel like he's one of the cleanest racers out there. And he wins more than anyone else. That's tough to do. It's tough to be a winner and be clean all in the same sentence. He manages to do that. And on top of that, he never makes his job harder because, you know, he said the wrong thing. And I think that other than probably Jeff Gordon of many years ago, that just hasn't been seen in our sport in a long time.
MS: Drivers grow up dreaming of racing cars. All that comes with it, you're not necessarily ready for. Fame, money, women. Most guys are really uncomfortable with that and would rather shun it. You seem OK with fame. What's it like with all the perks that come with it?
DH: I think I handle it well now. I don't necessarily think I handled it well the first couple of years. I think that the first two years it cost me a lot. It cost me relationships. There's a lot of things that I had to change over the last couple of years that I didn't like about myself. So, it all looks good now and anyone that meets me now thinks, "Oh, you're pretty grounded for being in the position you are " well, I had to get knocked back down to be the person I am today.
MS: What did you have to change and how did you get knocked back down?
DH: A lot of it is some personal stuff, but I feel like I at times alienated family, I feel like there were times when all I cared about was myself and I only looked out for myself, and nowadays I feel like that's not the case. I'm the total opposite of that now. I feel like I am the same person now than I was when I was 15, 16 years old. I just have a little bit more money.
DH: How easy is it to lose yourself, forget, when that fame come so quickly?
DH: It's extremely easy. And the only excuse that I can give myself for kind of the way I was early in my career, is that -- I challenge anyone to go from racing Late Models, working 50 hours a week to put tires on a race car; to the Cup Series in one year, nonetheless, and see how they take it. See how they react. And I guarantee you it's a tough job. That's why you see in other sports, they have counseling for rookies in every other sport of how are you going to handle the fame now that you've got it. NASCAR doesn't have that, but I definitely could have used it.
MS: Should they?
DH: I don't know. I look at the young guys nowadays and I think that they are more grounded than probably what I was. But it was tough. I can't express that I got thrown into this situation so fast. I literally had no time to run the Nationwide Series for a couple years to get used to a few appearances here and there, sponsor obligations -- it was like the first couple of years, "Hell no, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do that, I don't want to do this interview, I don't want to do this sponsor stuff. Why do I gotta take care of them? Isn't my job just to go out there and win races?" And you realize that there's such a bigger picture to being successful in our sport other than winning races.
MS: It's kind of like that Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing."
DH: (Laughs) Very similar.
MS: If you listen to the words in that song, it's guys moving refrigerators in the kitchen, looking at MTV at these guys playing guitars saying, "Man, they got it made " There's a whole lot of guys racing Late Model cars that don't have a damn bit of remorse for you
DH: Or, yeah you think about P. Diddy "More Money More Problems"
MS: I find it tremendous to be at a charity event with you where you have to raise money in a hurry, and you can pull out your phone and say, "Hum, Michael Jordan. Hey, Adam Sandler." That can't suck!
DH: No! There's times when I pull out my phone and I'm going through and I'm looking for someone in my contact list and it's like "Damn, I can't believe I have his number!" There's many times where I scroll by Jeff Gordon's and I'm like "Damn, I can't believe I have Jeff Gordon's phone number!" You know? And because he's just been someone I've always looked up to throughout my whole racing career. He was the guy that revolutionized racing as we all know it. So it's amazing to me the people I've been able to meet and the friends I've been able to establish, simply because I am a NASCAR driver.
MS: The Jeff Gordon part intrigues me. You've told me before that there'll be times when you're in his presence and you're still sort of like it's Jeff Gordon!?
DH: It's pretty amazing. And a lot of it goes on when we're doing pace laps. For me, the more surreal moments, honestly, are right before a green flag and I got Jeff Gordon in the row right in front of me, Dale Jr. is the guy right beside me, and it's just, Jeff Burton is right there. It's just guys that I've grown up watching and watched them race thousands of laps. I've been studying these guys for 10-15 years -- I know their every move -- are right here in front of me and I'm gonna race them for 500 miles. That's the more surreal moment that I have each and every week.
MS: Don't ever lose that.
DH: I never will and it's still amazing to me. And hopefully, one rookie that comes in in 2015 will think that when he sees me.