During the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Denny Hamlin was so close to being the man, but he couldn’t quite beat the man. He’s looking to change that this year as the race for the 2011 cup comes down to the wire.
Last year’s story goes like this: Hamlin won the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway to find himself up 33 points over Johnson with two races left on the calendar. The following week – at the Phoenix International speedway – Hamlin started 14th on the grid. He fought his way up to the lead and dominated the race. But, due to a miscalculation, he had to pit for fuel with 14 laps to go. That cost him the race and a shot at the Cup.
In the season’s final week. Hamlin lost the points lead and the Cup to now five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
As the 2011 circuit approaches the finish line, CraveOnline caught up with Hamlin to discuss his spot on the Toyota team and his push to figure in the Cup race one more time.
CraveOnline: With the chase coming to the end, what are your goals individually and as a member of the Toyota team?
Denny Hamlin: Two of us on the Toyota team have a legitimate chance to win the Cup – Kyle Busch and myself. If I stumble, then my focus has to switch to our teammate and doing what we need to do to bring Toyota its first NASCAR championship.
CraveOnline: You just missed last year, and this year hasn’t been quite as successful. What do you need to do to settle it all down?
Denny Hamlin: A lot of it is chemistry, to be honest. It’s a matter of getting on the same page as a team and work on the priorities of winning races. We got a lot of work to do to right that ship.
CraveOnline: You drive a Toyota in a sport created by and for American cars. Do you think fans realize the Camrys you drive are built in Kentucky?
Denny Hamlin: I think it’s important people know that. The NASCAR supporters we have now are hardcore racing fans and hardcore Americans. What you hear sometimes from some fans is, “I wish you drove for an American make of vehicle.” But considering who builds Camrys and where they’re built, we couldn’t be driving a more American vehicle.
I appreciate Toyota’s unwavering support of our sport. Even though a Camry has a Japanese pedigree, it’s important to us that the company decided to build these cars in America with American-made parts.
CraveOnline: For the uninitiated, how much of your racer is still Camry? Just the frame?
Denny Hamlin: More or less. Obviously, the engine is the most important and biggest difference. We had our own engine program through my personal team in the 11 car. But at Michigan, we started running a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engine – which brings my car a little closer to the Camry you might see on the road.
I also think you might be seeing a more standard factory-issued dash board in next year’s cars.
CraveOnline: If you do manage to bring home a Sprint Cup title and wrestle it away from the guy who’s won five in a row (Jimmie Johnson), how do you think it’ll feel to have that target on your back?
Denny Hamlin: We were so close last year. It just made me hungrier to win – to know what it’s like to have everyone out there gunning for you. It’s still early in my racing career, and I’m going to do what I need to do to find out what that feels like.
Photo credit – AP