Entering the weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Denny Hamlin’s main focus in his preseason media session was on the struggles that Joe Gibbs Racing has fought through to start the season. In the first five races of the season, Hamlin had only two top-10s. Despite those struggles, Hamlin still believed his team had a shot at the victory as the driver can make up a lot at Martinsville, simply by requiring a certain style and rhythm behind the wheel.
Even with an uncontrolled tire penalty mid-race, he was able to make his way back to the front of the field and held off a charge from Brad Keselowski at the end of the race to score the victory.
While the victory doesn’t mean that their struggles are cured, Hamlin says it does a lot for the team as it “buys you months of time to get everything worked out and get all the kinks worked out” before the Chase for the Championship in September since he is already locked in by virtue of the victory. Hamlin emphasized the fact that they can’t rest on the victory, but rather focus on improving.
“We had the longest competition meeting I’ve ever been a part of this past weekend. Joe raised his voice, which doesn’t happen very often, told us to get off our tails and go to work, and we all did it, and great result for this race team,” he added. “Sometimes you need a leader like that to kind of put things in perspective. Not that people weren’t working hard, but it just takes that extra 10 percent out of everyone to get to that next level, and I’m very proud of the speed that we’ve shown with our 11 team so far this year. We’ve run top 5 every single week except for Phoenix, and we’re going to work on that.”
There’s no doubt about that as Hamlin showed speed at Fontana, but finished 28th due to an uncontrolled tire on the last set of pit stops. At Atlanta, he finished 38th after a wreck on the backstretch that saw him get into the wall. Though having the speed, they have beaten half the battle. One of the focuses of improvement moving forward will be the pit crew to avoid the pit road penalties. Joe Gibbs Racing made adjustments to the pit crew over the off-season, bringing in some new guys, and Hamlin says he feels the issues are due to being “early in the season, and there’s just kinks that you have.”
“Teams work it out all the time. Other professional sports teams, they get in the groove when it really becomes time to get in the groove,” Hamlin added. “We were able to overcome the pit road issues that we had, and to be fair to them, we had some engine issues that didn’t allow me to be as good on pit road as what I could be with my job, so I think that that was a bit of a challenge, and so trust me, I didn’t like to see any cautions fly because I knew there was a chance we were going to lose positions. But we just got it worked out, and that was the first time I’ve ever pitted way back there in pit stall 43, so that was new to me, trying to figure out how to do that. It’s just a process. We’re trying to learn for the Chase race here. That’s the golden ticket for us. We’re trying to get better, and Dave will get it all worked out with these guys.”
Hamlin went on to say that once they work out their issues, they should be able to win a lot of races this season.
“I’m excited about the summer months now,” he continued. “Now that kind of the stress is off, we can go out there and have fun and try some things and really let Dave just kind of do his job and work on some things that’s going to make us better in the fall.”
On top of the fact that it’s a big win for the No. 11 FedEx team, it marked a big win after the news about J.D. Gibbs’ health was released earlier this weekend. Hamlin says it certainly means a lot as it was Gibbs who played a big role in him joining Joe Gibbs Racing.
“It was — about 12, 13 years ago really when J.D. happened to just show up at a Hickory test where we were running some late models, and he made a phone call to his dad and thought maybe he had something there that was special,” Hamlin reflected. “They signed me up, and J.D. was the key to making that happen. I got propelled into the Cup Series, and one year from late models to the Cup in just one year, and it was a lot for me, but they believed in me and they gave me opportunities to succeed.
“I thank my lucky stars every day that I was able to get in the car that I was able to get into because so many young guys come into this sport and don’t get an opportunity with a good team, and I was put with a great race team, and things worked out for me in my future, and it’s amazing looking back on it how everything played out. But these guys gave me my chance, and J.D. was a big key to that.”