DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Among the questions Denny Hamlin fielded on Media Day at Daytona International Speedway last week was this gem: “Do you go into the season as the weak link at Joe Gibbs Racing?”
Hamlin handled the inquiry with aplomb.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “From what I’ve seen from testing, I believe we’re going to be one of the guys that comes out pretty strong, pretty early.”
Two days later, Hamlin was in the driver’s seat — literally and figuratively — and proved to be a prophet as he powered his way past the field in the final laps to win Saturday night’s season-opening Sprint Unlimited.
As Hamlin breezed across the finish line, he delivered just two celebratory words to crew chief Darian Grubb, his team and to his doubters: “Any questions?”
Simply put, Hamlin seemed to have the best car in the field — at any moment during the event. Starting from the pole thanks to his strong practice lap times, he led a race-high 27 of the 75 laps.
JGR teammate Kyle Busch was not surprised by the performance of Hamlin or his No. 11 FedEx team.
“He’s on a mission,” Busch said.
For Hamlin, 2013 had been a season to forget. But for a driver who had won five times in 2012 and finished in the top 10 of Sprint Cup points for five consecutive seasons, there also was a lesson to be learned.
“I took for granted just making the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup) every single year and winning multiple races every year,” said Hamlin, whose 2013 campaign was thrown off track early by a compressed vertebrae in his back sustained in an accident at Auto Club Speedway which sidelined him for four races.
“It’s something no driver wants to have to go through, but I think it was kind of a game-changer in my outlook and my attitude toward being a Sprint Cup driver. Obviously, it made me appreciate in my own mind what I get to do every week.”
Although relegated to 23rd in the final standings, Hamlin made a statement in the final race of 2013, holding off teammate Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to post his lone victory of the season.
“That’s two in a row for us,” said Hamlin, as good with math after Saturday’s race as he was behind the wheel. “I think we’re building on something big here.”
On the physical side, there has been sweat and ongoing therapy, including anti-inflammatory and pain-numbing injection treatments and a Pilates program.
“Pilates has been my best friend,” Hamlin said. “I heard that I needed to try it, and once I did, I immediately felt better. I just kind of got addicted to it. It’s not pretty by any means — a guy like myself being in a Pilates studio. But it works for me.
“(My health) is better than it’s been since I can really remember. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point. There’s nothing lingering. I’ve gotten (the back) scanned and everything looks great.”
On the mental side, Hamlin is taking a new outlook into 2014, focusing on preparation.
“(In years past) I just showed up and we did it,” he said. “Now, with the competition and how we ran last year, you’ve got to think about preparing. You can’t just rely on talent. (It’s about) looking over what you struggled with. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting: How can you get better? … not just chalking it up, saying, ‘Oh, it was just a bad weekend.’
“I don’t think that you can just show up, sit down in your seat, not know anything about your car and run as competitively as some of the guys that win each week.”
Hamlin, 33, knows he has the equipment to contend at most every track. Kenseth and Busch proved that last year.
In his first year with JGR, Kenseth won seven races, including the first two of the Chase. Kenseth, who led the point standings after the 26 regular-season races and with three races left in the Chase, eventually finished second to champion Jimmie Johnson.
“It was great to see Matt come in and be that successful,” said Busch, who won four races, had 16 top-fives and recorded his best career finish in the Chase, placing fourth. “It’s going to be great to have Denny back and have him healthy hopefully for the whole season.”
One problem, according to Kenseth: “The bad thing is that when Denny is at his best, it’s hard to beat him. I have two teammates that can win each and every week. That makes it hard on you.”
As Speedweeks at Daytona approached, Hamlin was anxious to get started.
“The only thing that’s keeping me up at night, right now, is the anticipation,” he said. “I’m one of the few drivers who couldn’t get this offseason over quick enough.
“After the win at Homestead, I realized that we run as good as I feel and I feel pretty comfortable in the car. You don’t like to talk about what you can do, you want to show people.”
Hamlin thinks JGR’s performance in the Sprint Unlimited positions all three drivers well for Sunday’s 56th running of the Daytona 500.
“The drivers who are part of the Unlimited get to race the rust off,” Hamlin said. “We only do (restrictor-plate) racing four to five times a year, so it is an art form. The more you do it, the better you become. So, I think it’s a big advantage to get a race under our belts before the 500. It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey.”
So, just one more question: Will Hamlin and the No. 11 team continue to make a statement as the season continues?
“It’s going to be a redemption year,” Hamlin said. “It’s going to be a year that we’ve got to prove to ourselves that we’re back. I’ve got to prove to myself that I can be back to where I was.”