News & Media


Hamlin had to get away to get back to winning

March 05, 2012, Jarrod Breeze, NASCAR.com

A re-energized and refocused Denny Hamlin came back to his home away from home and walked out a winner Sunday. (Getty Images)

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Decision to spend offseason in Arizona paying off with regained mental fortitude

Denny Hamlin finally can move on.

Hamlin's victory Sunday in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway might not totally erase the disaster he encountered there in November 2010, when Hamlin's malaise about poor fuel mileage was widely blamed for him losing the Sprint Cup Series championship. But it has helped reaffirm that Hamlin is on track again after a soul-searching offseason.

"You hear the good and the bad criticism about not being around the race team for two months while the season is not going on. But that's what I needed to improve myself, and I was just as weak a link as anyone last year within our program."

--DENNY HAMLIN

For whatever reason, Hamlin and the No. 11 team never got untracked in 2011, and a 2010 that ended in disappointment evolved into a season of discontent the following year. His 16.0 average finish was the worst of any of his six full-time seasons, and he never was a Chase threat in finishing ninth in points.

"We had a tough, long, hard year last year, and going through all that, and this year to come out of the box the way we have has just been awesome," said Joe Gibbs, owner of Hamlin's Toyota. "I've got ... a very good feeling about this year."

Coupled with his fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500, Hamlin sits atop the points for the first time since Phoenix 2010. He holds a six-point advantage on Greg Biffle, the only other driver to open the season with consecutive top-fives.

"It's a little bit of satisfaction there, for sure," Hamlin said. "I mean, this is a -- it's a bittersweet track. Before that moment [in 2010], I had a lot of success at this track, ran very competitive. Never got a win, but last year I wasn't a huge fan of the race track obviously because I wasn't that competitive.

"And then this year, starting off like this -- this is not my type of race track. ... So to be competitive under these circumstances, it just kind of reminds me of 2010 where we were winning at tracks that no one expected us to win at, and we were starting to be race winners at tracks where we hadn't before."

Hamlin's first victory at Phoenix in 14 starts ended a 22-race winless streak; after winning eight races in 2010, he won just once last season.

"Last year, we just never got going," Hamlin said. "We just didn't have it all together. It's a year that I'd just as soon forget about."

To that end, Hamlin escaped to, of all places, Arizona, to clear his mind and refocus his energy. It's a tactic that has paid early dividends, despite some non-believers.

"You hear the good and the bad criticism about not being around the race team for two months while the season is not going on. But that's what I needed to improve myself, and I was just as weak a link as anyone last year within our program," Hamlin said.

"What I needed to do to make myself better is what I did, and that was just get away and not even think about racing for a while. But when it came time to get to the race track, my focus is solely on winning races and winning a championship, and I'll do anything it takes to do that. It's just my way of doing things. It's what I needed to do to improve my driving and my focus."

So Hamlin won't be looking back anymore. There's too much to do looking ahead.

"I'm still going to push for more and more and more things within our race car," Hamlin said. "That's the attitude you've got to have to stay on top."

Which is where he is right now.

And as for Phoenix?

"You know, and it seems like throughout my career, whenever we lock onto one race track and we win, we win multiple times there," Hamlin said. "Obviously this being the second to the last race of the season, hopefully it's a sign of things to come later."

Watch highlights from the Subway Fresh Fit 500 here: