Athlon Sports helps introduce the racing world to NASCAR's 2006 Rookie of the Year
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Athlon Sports: How old were you when you started racing go-karts, and who got you your first go-kart?
Denny Hamlin: My parents got me my first go-kart when I was 8, and we took it to Amelia Motor Raceway on a Wednesday. That was their practice day. We just wanted to see how I did. I had never driven anything at all. I hadn’t even ridden a bicycle. I think I got loose a couple of times and he (my Dad) immediately noticed. They put me in a race the next weekend and we won it. I’ve still got that trophy.
AS: How old were you the first time you sat in a racecar? What was the color and the number?
DH: It was a purple-and-white 11. I was at Langley Speedway. I remember setting the track record that day, and that record still stands...I remember leading every lap but one. I got passed on a restart by Bobby Spivey and I remember passing him right back. I got passed because I missed a shift. I was all excited and I missed a shift, and they went around me, but I passed them the next lap.
AS: When you first arrived, how intimidating was that whole group at Gibbs Racing?
DH: It was definitely intimidating. Gibbs is definitely known for winning and knowing how to find talent and put people in the right places. It’s a lot to live up to. When they signed me they were just coming off the championship by Bobby and then Tony again a couple of years ago, so they know how to win. You’re given the same equipment as those guys and you’re expected to go out there and win and contend for championships.
AS: When you look at your career, one thing that stands out is that you made big splashes. In your Truck debut you got a top 10. In your Busch debut you finished eighth, and in your second Cup start you finished with another top 10.
DH: That’s what I credit to getting where I’m at so fast. You’re given opportunities, but trying to make the best of them is kind of hard to do. Performing at your best when it matters the most is what I take the most pride in. We were on our way to a great Cup debut until we got a flat tire under green at Kansas, but we definitely followed up in Charlotte with that top-10 finish.
AS: How do you balance Denny Hamlin, the professional athlete with Denny Hamlin, the guy hanging with buddies?
DH: When I get in my car, and I get ready to go racing, that’s when I kick in that mode where I don’t want to be messed with, there’s no more play, it’s serious. Up until that point, I’m the same guy that I am when I go home and have fun with my friends. For me, it’s a relatively easy transition.
AS: What was the biggest surprise: winning the Bud Shootout, the Pocono wins or making the Chase as a rookie?
DH: I don’t know. Making the Chase definitely was a real big deal, but the Bud Shootout was probably the biggest moment I had all year. Winning the very first race of the season and just giving a big boost to the whole team. (But) it was really probably making the Chase, because that’s a huge accomplishment your first year.
AS: Did you hate for 2006 to end or did you need a breather?
DH: I was 50/50. Performance-wise I wish we would have kept going, but then again I was very exhausted at the end of the season. You can ask anybody at Gibbs, and it looked like I was death warming over for the last, probably, two months of the season. Running both series, I’ve got a lot of sponsor obligations. That really wore me down more than anything.
AS: Do you have a win number in mind for 2007?
DH: Ideally we’d like to win four races (but) we’d like to win at least two races. It’s so competitive now you’ve got to be happy to win any race. I think no less than two and anything over four would be a great bonus.
AS: Do you think the Car of Tomorrow factor works in JGR’s favor because you can adapt to any situation so quickly?
DH: Yeah. I think that will definitely help. It’s going to suit some guys’ driving style better than others. Eventually we’re all going to get it figured out and you’re going to see the best teams rise to the top. But I don’t have a whole lot of bad habits to bring to the Car of Tomorrow. They don’t drive that much different in my opinion. I’ve only driven them once, but it didn’t drive so much different that I was going to completely change how I race.
AS: Did Tony haze you at all since you were the rookie?
DH: He was pretty easy on me all year long to tell you the truth. I was surprised that he didn’t pick on me a lot more than he did. The best thing about our relationship is probably on the racetrack. We’re really generous to each other. During the Chase when I needed a spot he’d let me have it. That’s all you can ask for in a teammate is to do everything in his power to help you. I can’t thank him enough for that.
AS: You’ve had some really funny, unique instances off the track. Which do you think stands out more: flipping the lawnmower while filming the FedEx commercial, the incident during the Charlotte test when you sliced your hand open or wrestling one of your buddies and getting the black eye?
DH: Probably the race (around the hauler) and cutting my hand because it just shows my competitiveness. Obviously, it was a foot race that time, but you can’t ever let someone outdo you. That’s what I tried to do — I tried to beat someone at racing and I ended up paying for it. It just shows how competitive I am.
AS: Do you ever replay a race in your mind when you’re done with it? Or do you just move on to the next week?
DH: No, I constantly do. I always watch the race. When I come home, it doesn’t matter if I get home at 6:00 a.m. because it’s a West Coast race or 3:00 a.m., I always watch the entire race as soon as I get home. Just to kind of critique it while it’s fresh in my mind. I feel like I can learn a whole lot more.
AS: Tony told me one time that he realized he had made it to the big time when he was driving through his hometown and in front of the hardware store was a Coke machine with his picture on it. Do you have any specific instances like that?
DH: You’ve definitely made it when that’s the case. For me it’s weird just watching my commercials. Before I was always watching to see when I was on TV; now it’s like, ‘All right, we’ll turn the channel.’ It’s definitely a difference.
AS: When you look at ’07, how are you going to try and avoid the dreaded Sophomore Slump? Are you working on some things you need to improve on?
DH: I know that there are a lot of areas that people don’t see that I need improvement on. Working out is one thing. Of course, when you’re fit, you’re going to feel better. It’s going to help you at the end of the race to feel better and get everything you can get. That’s just one step. The things on the track that I need to work on, I know will just take time to get better.
AS: When you look at the Daytona 500 this past year and you’re sitting in the drivers meeting, was it a surreal moment knowing you were about to compete in the Daytona 500?
DH: The moment that I really realized it was when I (was) walking out on pit row. You can see all the celebrities walking by and meeting with people and stuff and I’m just a face in the crowd, still an unknown. That was the moment where I really realized that I was (a) part of the Daytona 500.
AS: What costs more in your new house? The furniture or the home entertainment system?
DH: The entertainment system. Without a doubt.
AS: What’s in your your iPod?
DH: To be quite honest, my top 25 has a lot of rap in it for sure. I’m a big T.I. fan. I like The Game. There are just a few guys that I really like. There’s a lot of rock on it too. Of course, there’s a lot of Nickelback, Staind and other artists. All-American Rejects are good. I can listen to just about anything.
AS: When you signed that first big contract, what was the first extravagant thing you bought?
DH: I remember buying a plasma TV. That was my very first gift to myself. I had a very, very small contract and spent pretty much all of it on a new TV for my house.
AS: When you look back at your personal cars, does anything stand out?
DH: My Ford Ranger, my very first truck that I fixed up, was my pride and joy. I got it in Mini Truckin’ magazine, so that was a pretty proud moment for me when I was 16, 17. I spent a lot of time fixing it up and stuff. That was the first and really only vehicle that I have taken from scratch and made something of it.
AS: You and crew chief Mike Ford have such a great chemistry. How does he get the most out of you?
DH: He shoots me straightforward. You have some crew chiefs that try to sugarcoat things and they make it sound better than what you know it really is. Mike isn’t like that. He’s a realist and he’ll say, ‘All right we don’t have a chance today, so we need to just do something.’ I appreciate the honesty more than I do someone trying to make me feel better, because that just makes me madder or worse.