Denny Hamlin navigates the playoffs as a driver and owner

from Bob Pokras
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are fierce competitors and good friends.

But when Hamlin started his own race team a few years ago, Larson didn’t know what to think. He knew his friend was dedicated to his job as a race car driver, but he also enjoyed playing golf when he could get to it. Managing a racing team will certainly reduce that free time.

30 or 40 years ago, drivers often owned the cars they raced. However, those years are long gone. Dale Earnhardt created a race team for his son and others to compete with while remaining at Richard Childress Racing, but few other drivers in the past 25 years have ventured down the owner-driver path, and even fewer have done with individual organizations.

Hamlin didn’t seem fazed by the story. During the pandemic, he wondered what he would do, how he would continue to be involved in the sport after his racing career was over, whether that was two or 10 years later.

As he saw the pieces of a racing team potentially coming together in the summer of 2020, he decided to get ahead of his ‘retirement’ plan by starting a team in 2021 and found the perfect business partner in his friend Michael Jordan.

If Hamlin is distracted by owning two 23XI Racing race cars while also driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, he hasn’t shown it. One of the most successful non-championship drivers (48 Cup wins, zero championships), Hamlin opened the playoffs with a runner-up finish at Darlington. He now has a 30-point cushion on the cutoff.

Kyle Larson as Denny Hamlin’s owner on 23XI

Kyle Larson, a good friend of Denny Hamlin, said he initially wasn’t sure how much time Hamlin would devote to his role as owner at 23XI Racing, but now he’s sure.

“He’s very dedicated,” Larson said. “I love seeing his dedication to his racing team because I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like when he announced he was going to own the team.

“I thought maybe it would just be his name. But he’s definitely two feet deep in being a team owner. I think this is great. It will be good for his racing team in the future and he will be a team owner that will be around for a long time.”

Where possible, the 23XI Racing team will give Hamlin some extra space over the next nine weeks. But with Kurt Busch still dealing with a head injury, his future status unknown and the team scrambling to find a way to keep Busch in the Toyota camp, Hamlin can’t ignore everything.

“It’s just part of what I do,” he said last week when he became the owner of the racing team. “I like to be busy. If I miss things, it’s not because I just want to sit in the back and sip a piña colada… I need something to work on.

“But I will take a lot of my time and focus on the performance of the 11 on the track [car] here in the next 10 [playoff] weeks to make sure I’m doing my best and that I’m not making any mistakes that will prevent us from winning a championship.”

Denny Hamlin on his championship near misses

Denny Hamlin on his championship near misses

Denny Hamlin, still looking for his first championship, said the JGR No. 11 will win or lose as a team, as it has in past playoffs.

Hamlin has often said he was happy with his performance in past playoffs, with the exception of 2010 when he led late in the season but crashed as he had to pit for fuel at the end of the penultimate race at Phoenix and let the pressure get to him in the Homestead finale.

Many believe Hamlin would have won in 2019 had it not been for the team placing a piece of tape that was too large and in the wrong place on the nose of the car during a final stop. Instead of adding downforce, it caused the car to overheat.

“We’re a team,” Hamlin said. “We will win or lose as a team. In 2019, when they put a big piece of tape on the car, it was a decision I supported from [crew chief] Chris [Gabehart].

“I do my best on the track. That’s my job is to make sure I have those moments where I don’t look back and wish I could have driven a little harder or done something different. At the end of the day, there is nothing I could have changed the outcome of, other than 2010.”

As for his championship hopes this year, Hamlin said his team will need to perform at the intermediate tracks where they have had the best results this season.

“These are the ones we have to win to go through to the next round,” he said. “Those other tracks, according to the data this year, we’re not very good [where] we just have to go and have a good, solid day and finish eighth when we should have finished 15th.”

Denny Hamlin on his strategy in the final laps at Darlington

Denny Hamlin on his strategy in the final laps at Darlington

Denny Hamlin explains his strategy for Sunday’s final laps at Darlington as he hopes to overtake Eric Jones for the win.

Confidence is rarely an issue for Hamlin. And it won’t be for the next nine weeks.

“I’ve been doing this forever,” he said. “And I know that the anticipation and excitement I had the first few times is a lot different than what I feel now, 17 years later or whatever.

“I think [experience] questions. I think race management is important, points management and playoff standings, knowing what competition you’re racing against on any given day. It all matters how you progress in these playoffs. Sometimes you don’t compete to win, I hate to say it. You have to compete to get ahead.”

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What to watch out for

The race in Kansas will be a big test of the changes in tire construction, designed to be more durable and have better grip.

The right tire was used at Pocono in July and this left tire has not been used before. But it will be again; this tire combination is expected to be used at Texas and Las Vegas (the other 1.5-mile tracks) in the playoffs.

The tire change could change the way the race goes compared to the May event. There will definitely be a different winner, like Kurt Busch won in Kansas earlier this year.

Busch passed Kyle Larson over the final 10 laps to win that race. Larson bounced off the wall several times as he tried to get the most out of his car throughout the race. Larson said he doesn’t plan on hitting the wall that many times this weekend.

Watch the playoff drivers to see how far they are willing to push their cars to the edge. They’ll need to do so in order to go fast, but it also means risking damage to their cars and losing valuable points they may need to advance to the second round.

Think out loud

NASCAR made three rule changes to try to prevent fires.

The first is an optional coating on the areas near the exhaust manifolds. The second is a mandatory panel designed to keep debris (such as a tire) from entering the car in areas where it can get hot and burn.

The third is a mandatory stainless steel shield behind the foam inside the right door. The current “shield” is a polymeric material designed primarily to keep debris out of the cockpit area. The stainless steel shield is designed to prevent a fire from spreading quickly in the cockpit, thus allowing the driver more time to get out.

It’s good that NASCAR made the changes as it tries to fix the new car’s safety issues. It allows teams to manufacture the stainless steel shield (teams can also purchase one per car), something NASCAR probably didn’t want to do, but had to do given that its suppliers couldn’t produce the quantity that quickly. as necessary.

All cars have safety issues while they are being developed and while the teams are developing the cars. The next generation will be no different. The fire issue is frustrating because heat in the car is a constant problem; the sealed bottom of the car has been creating excessive heat since teams began testing in earnest.

NASCAR will face more of the brunt of these problems than in the past because it designed this car and has mostly single-source suppliers, which means teams can’t build something to fix the problem on their own.

Is NASCAR unfairly criticized for being slow to react when a car has problems in its first year? Perhaps. But that’s what NASCAR signed up to in creating the single-vendor concept. And when it comes to safety, shouts from those racing and the responsibility to listen and respond in a quick but methodical way are often necessary parts of the improvement process.

Social spotlights

They said it

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car and here we are in the pits with a burnt car and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy parts.” Kevin Harvick

Bob Pokras covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, working at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand register for FOX Sports NASCAR Bulletin with Bob Pokras.

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