THE MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us. We are now joined by Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota and the winner of today's eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series at North Wilkesboro.
Denny, thanks for joining us today. You bookend starting off with a win at Homestead, then today with a win. Talk a little bit about these last few weeks, what it is to bring iRacing to such a larger platform.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, we've had a thing over the last few years of winning very, very important races: The Daytona 500, the elimination race at Phoenix last year to get in the final four, then Daytona 500 this year, then the two virtual wins, the first one and the last one. Those are the two you probably want to win in those circumstances.
Pretty awesome to be able to have success and be competitive and race for wins, whether it be in real life or virtual.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up to questions.
- Give us an overall assessment as to how you thought the entire eNASCAR Series went, summarizing the whole six races as far as from a competition aspect.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, for me it was fun to see the progression of the guys who had been doing it quite a bit, and you've also got the guys that are just starting it for the first time, have zero starts before the Invitational. To watch them get better and better, and to watch the commitment that they all put in to get better...
Listen, nobody wants to go out there and suck. Throughout the entire week, guys are running hundreds and hundreds of laps at these tracks to get better because they want to put on a good showing, they want to be competitive. That's what drives us to be the racecar drivers that we are in real life, is the fire to want to be better.
Everyone knows that everything is level. No one has a car advantage, no one has a setup advantage, no one has a team advantage. It's all about the driver. We take a lot of pride in performing well when that happens.
- In regards to getting back to real racing next week at Darlington, what is your personal approach as far as no practice, no qualifying, just getting in the car and go? You haven't been on a track since March 8th.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, that's going to be different. I truly don't think it will be any ‑‑ it will be a little different than Daytona because we have practices and things like that. To me, when we go to California, Atlanta, whatever the second race of the season is, that is always the nervous moment I have. I usually don't race anything in the off‑season, don't do any testing.
It's difficult to be able to trust yourself and your instincts you know what you're doing barreling off into turn one at the proper speed. The good news is now that we know all these guys have got rigs, I guarantee all of them will be on iRacing at some point out there making laps at Darlington just to get reacclimated.
- What concerns or questions do you feel the drivers have about going back, whether it's in the safety protocols or the race procedures?
DENNY HAMLIN: For me personally, I don't know about other drivers, but just the unknowns about the procedures. You can read about them all you want. We also heard through the teleconference we had with NASCAR about the protocols. But making sure you're doing everything exactly the way that they want it.
Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we're doing things, making sure it's done in a safe manner. For all of us it's just the unknown of making sure we're doing it the right way.
After the first week I think it will be easier and people will have a better understanding. Certainly the first week there will be some questions that I'm sure drivers will have.
- We saw the UFC fighter test positive as well as his corner man, so that fighter won't be able to participate in fights. Have you gotten a feeling of what to do in the days leading up to Darlington this week? Have you gotten any direction from NASCAR or JGR as far as what you should be doing as far as social distancing?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I'm just following really the guidelines that you see and read on TV. Just trying to do that. I've obviously checked my temperature throughout this whole thing. I've been pretty lucky as far as that's concerned.
I have two kids. They run a temperature all the time. It's a little nervous for me knowing that you could get a fever or something like that, and it maybe will scare you into thinking you have something that you don't.
I'm pretty certain that no matter what, we're in an advantage because we're a non‑contact sport, especially with the players themselves. I'm confident that we can go from our street car that we drive to the racetrack, into our racecar, not be within six feet of anyone, except for the person that is on the window net.
We're going to be able to do this and it should be pretty effective.
- A question on the protocol when you go to Darlington. You won't have PR people with you. No disrespect to the drivers, but you guys are a big focus, have a lot going on. I envision drivers with sheets and sheets of paper on a clipboard. I know you remember things on racetracks and drivers meetings. Will that be different for all of you?
DENNY HAMLIN: It will. I mean, truth be told, we rely on the handlers quite a bit. They're the ones that tell us, Driver intros, it's time to go, it's time to go for this. We got so much going on, especially on race day.
The difference is really we're going from our street car to our motorhome, wherever we're going to be kind of self‑contained, straight to the racecar.
What I envision most likely will happen is NASCAR, they have us all on a mass text. They'll probably give us a text saying, Drivers to your cars. The same way they communicate when they tell us we have a rain delay.
I think it's going to be easier because there is nothing to sidetrack us on race day. It's literally just going to race and race only. We don't need all those extra people around like we normally would.
- When you pull off at Darlington on the first lap, shut your eyes, what do you think that's going to be like?
DENNY HAMLIN: I envision people are going to be pretty timid, at least for the first few laps, just trying to understand, checking your travels. There's plenty of times where these things unload, the cars are hitting the racetrack, you're not ready to be in a pack quite yet. That will certainly be different.
But we do have the data from last year. We have the data from last year. I think everyone is going to be pretty confident going into turn one that the travels are right. I'm sure the crew chiefs are going to be very conservative with their travels to make sure the car doesn't hit the racetrack on the first run.
I think all in all it's going to be like an old shoe. I don't think from the TV's perspective fans will see anything different than just a normal race that they would normally see at Darlington.
- Can you put me in the seat next week in the sense of this is an ultra‑green track, no rubber laid down, the early forecast looks to be in the mid to high 80s. Each week you are chasing tracks. That's part of your normal process. With all the things you'll be worried about with how the car handles at the beginning, the thinking process of trying to figure out how to catch up to the track, what is that going to be like with different challenges of no rubber, potentially higher temperatures?
DENNY HAMLIN: I mean, it will be a challenge. I think every driver thinks they have an advantage, right? But I like that there's so many unknowns.
I trust my crew chief and team with Joe Gibbs Racing, we have enough smart people that we feel like this is a place where we can get an advantage. Everyone thinks that, with all organizations. Hey, I trust my guys, and I like the unknowns.
Personally as a driver, man, I got to run the Southern 500 in the day probably 12, 13 years ago. I mean, on the old surface it was super slick. It's going to be a challenge for us drivers with that hot racetrack. That track is a lot different during the day versus night.
I like the challenge. I like thinking that I can get an advantage with drivers any time there is a change. But that's the mindset that probably 36 other guys have, as well.
- In normal times after a race, if you're frustrated with somebody, maybe you go talk to them after the race, discuss, yell. Maybe they come to you. How might that work now? I am envisioning drivers standing six feet away having a discussion or yelling at each other. Does everybody go back to their motorhomes and cars and start texting?
DENNY HAMLIN: Meet them at the exit (laughter). That's the only thing I can think of.
I don't know. I actually thought about that, as well. If there's ever a time to be aggressive, probably ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it because you don't have to face consequences right after the race.
I don't know, I think everyone is going to do the best they can. Certainly there are going to be guys that are going to be upset with each other, normally have a discussion afterwards. If you get fired up enough, you're going to go to that other car and other driver. We know that all eyes will be on us, right? Make sure you don't have contact with that driver or whatever, but you'll be close enough where you can give them a piece of your mind verbally within six feet, that's for sure.
- Matt Kenseth is coming back, will be getting in the car next week after 15 months off. How do you think he will do jumping into a car cold like that?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think he's going to do well. I mean, certainly I thought at the end of his second tenure with Roush in the 6 a couple years ago, by the end he certainly was lifting that program and making it better.
From my standpoint, I'm like, I don't want him back. I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It's another voice that that organization will hear that's different than what they've had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he's probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end.
He's my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point. I mean that jokingly (laughter).
- Larson is also a buddy of yours. He raced last night. Do you see a road back for him to NASCAR? Do you think he even wants to come back to NASCAR?
DENNY HAMLIN: I think he loves NASCAR. I think so much gets made about his love for dirt. He's got a love for dirt, there's no question about it. I went to plenty of races with him last year on Saturdays, just some dirt races, got to watch how passionate he is about dirt.
He also really likes Cup racing. I think if he wants to come back, there is a path for him back. He's been doing all the right things as far as what I've heard.
Obviously he put himself in a really bad spot saying something that was totally inappropriate. But, you know, people make mistakes. A lot of people make mistakes. Hopefully he's back in Cup racing sooner than later.
- Is there any sort of lift you get heading into real racing after having done so well in the iRacing Series? Any sort of a boost? Are you feeling a little more jacked up maybe than someone who didn't have the success that you did?
DENNY HAMLIN: I mean, I can only speak for me. But yeah, sure. I'm way more excited than if I wouldn't have won. Winning the last iRace, the first and the last one, it's significant.
We have millions of people watching. It's good publicity for my sponsors. It's good for me and my confidence.
Like I talked about earlier, we know, every driver knows, that everything is equal. There is no advantage for anybody. It's about who can hone their craft in iRacing. iRacing, we can always talk about it doesn't relate, this, that and the other. In some ways it won't and it doesn't. But you have to use the same techniques that make you good in iRacing that make you good in real life. It's not like playing Madden or NBA 2K where you're using your hand‑eye coordination pushing the buttons. You're using the gas, brakes, running two at the same time, steering wheel. Everything is the same.
I take pride in that. Hey, if everything is equal, I've won a couple times, I feel pretty good about where I'm at as a driver. Certainly I think there's some confidence that will spill over for a few weeks.
- What were the biggest challenges or moments of surprise? You had the clip with your daughter on Twitter from the iRacing experience.
DENNY HAMLIN: For me, I've had some very interesting things happen, for sure. To see Taylor's shenanigans reaching huge media outlets in L.A., here, everywhere, on TMZ. That's good. Even though I'm pissed off because my day is over, I wouldn't have traded that moment for anything. I would take that moment and keep it versus winning Talladega.
To me it was just something that I enjoy talking about. Taylor gets such a kick watching it, the highlights and everything that's been put together about it.
It's just a life moment that, hey, even though we didn't win, it didn't turn out well results‑wise, it still was a life moment that was really good for both of us.
- NASCAR has announced it's going to release safety enhancements after Ryan Newman's crash. What do you think NASCAR should be doing to make the sport safer?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I mean, I think them being able to look at data and continue to make the cars better and better every time there's a crash, it doesn't get enough credit. I know that they really kept in touch with us quite a bit over the last few months, downloading with us here is what we saw, here is where we think things could get better.
Listen, we all need to realize that Newman's crash was the best, right? No long‑term injuries, anything like that. Some bumps and bruises here and there. Everything did its job.
As a driver, I can tell you he got hit in the worst place possible. It was a freak, freak accident that we may not see ever again, a car driving straight into the worst spot possible when he's turned on his side.
It still passed the test. Even though it passed the test, they're continuing to make upgrades to the chassis to make it even better. I feel super fortunate. I think about it all the time that I came into the sport when it really took a step forward in safety. The HANS devices were being implemented. The Car of Tomorrow came out. A lot of different car changes and whatnot.
The danger and the fear of fatality has gone down quite a bit when I came in the sport. There's an element of danger. I broke my back in 2013 in a freak wreck. But we haven't had someone get truly hurt with long‑term injuries in these cars in a long time. Credit's got to go to NASCAR and their technical people for that.
- Tell me about the end of today's race. Inside 10 laps to go you put a bump‑n‑run in on Chaston. He watermelon'd you at the end of the race. Tell me about that.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, short‑track racing. Really it was two guys going for the same spot. He saw I had a run coming. The thing with iRacing is the leader has such a tremendous advantage on restarts. We're hearing in our head from the iRacing officials every time there's a spin or a wreck, and we don't know whether they're going to throw a caution or not.
Inside 10 laps to go I get to him. I'm thinking I have to make short work of him, like really, really quick. If a caution comes, I don't want to restart second. The leader has such an advantage. It will take five laps at least to get around him. We'll have less than that to go by the time we went green.
I got a good run on him. He saw I was going to be inside. Obviously he did his best to try to block there. As you could see, when I got into the back of him, I immediately checked up to try to let him catch it. Luckily he did. I think he got turned in the next corner. I'm not sure what happened there.
It was still a great race. I had a great battle with Christopher Bell for at least 15 laps. That was a blast. Then Ross at the end, I never thought his tires would hold up as good as they did. It was a really fun race.
If you talk about like a bump‑n‑run, that's a textbook way of doing it. You get the guy up, out of the groove, but you don't wreck him.
- What has your interaction been like with Chris Gabehart over this period? How have you tried to keep up to speed for whatever might come once we get off the sidelines?
DENNY HAMLIN: It's definitely picked up in the last few weeks, for sure. I don't know whether y'all know, but he just had his baby born last week. Got to spend some extra time at home. One of the good things about this is he has spent more time at home. With the with birth of his child coming, he doesn't have to hit the road. Normally you can spend a couple days with mama, then you got to go.
Things have kind of worked out scheduling‑wise with him where he's been able to spend some time at home and help with the kid and everything. We.
Had a discussion quite a bit over the last two days, meeting with the team, talking about protocols, making sure everyone is doing the right thing.
We've been talking also about what we do with our personnel. Certainly there's going to be less people allowed at the racetrack for these first few races. Moving the right pieces and the right people to go on the road versus keeping others back at the shop to prepare for the next race. I think he's got a really good plan together for that.
I look forward to seeing how it all works out. That's his strong suit: he's really good with planning ahead and thinking about things that a lot of people don't think about.
- Do you know what the pit box might look like, given social distancing, trying to maintain that six‑foot barrier?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I don't know. I haven't even thought about it, the pit boxes, to be honest with you. I think it's going to be a battle of broadband to be honest with you, where they're going to be communicating with people back at the shop and people at home.
I don't envision the pit box being full of people like it is on a normal race day. I don't know if it's just him or he's sitting up there. I don't know where he's going to be. I don't know how all that's going to play out.
I think the teams and NASCAR have discussed how they make sure everyone stays apart.
THE MODERATOR: Denny, thank you for joining us today.
DENNY HAMLIN: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you to all the media for joining us, as well.