Healed and stronger, Denny Hamlin ready to pick up in 2014 where he left off at Homestead

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When the green flag drops to start the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, it’ll be 98 days and 290 miles between races for Denny Hamlin.

But even with the time lapse and the distance between Hamlin’s 2013 season-ending win at Homestead Miami Speedway and the 2014 Sprint Cup season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the Virginia native still feels like it was just yesterday that he took home the checkered flag.

And even with the layoff, Hamlin still feels like he has the best momentum of pretty much any fellow competitor coming into this year’s 500, based upon how he ended the most difficult year of his career at Homestead.

“Homestead, for me, made me believe that it’s possible, that if I get back healthy, this is the kind of results we can expect and this is how I should expect to run,” Hamlin told MotorSportsTalk. “So, not that Homestead made me change how hard I worked in the gym this off-season, but it definitely motivated me to know that if I’m feeling good, I’m going to be running good.”

There’s no denying how difficult and frustrating last season was for Hamlin. He was in the worst wreck of his career, forced to miss the next four races as a result of the back injury he sustained in a head-on crash into a unpadded retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway last March.

“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said.

To say Hamlin is more cerebral coming into 2014 is not a stretch. Up until last season, he relied more so on his talent to lead him behind the wheel. But now, he’s much more of a thinking man’s driver.

“What I take from it the most, I would say, would be just the appreciation of when you do run well,” he said. “I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy, really didn’t have to prepare for it.  I just showed up and we did it.

“With the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good, you can’t just rely on talent to do it. “It’s looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better?”

Just putting the pedal to the metal won’t get it done anymore, Hamlin acknowledges. And what’s brought about the biggest change in him has nothing to do with Denny the race car driver, but more so Denny the man.

“I had a daughter, that helped a lot,” Hamlin said. “One thing’s for sure, as crappy as my weekends were week in and week out, it lasted as long as the plane ride home. That helped a ton.

“Those two events, having a daughter and having to sit out a few races, made me probably change my outlook more than anything has in the eight years that I’ve been in the Cup series on getting through those bad weeks and getting to the good ones and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Those two things have changed the way I think about my job and what I have to do and hopefully it’s all for the good and shows up in 2014.”

Hamlin ultimately finished 2013 in 23rd place, which in and of itself is pretty significant. Sure, it was the worst finish of his Sprint Cup career, but he still managed to do so in just 32 races, compiling the win at Homestead, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes.

By comparison, Hamlin finished higher than eight other full-time Cup competitors – including Casey Mears, Talladega spring winner David Ragan and Danica Patrick – in less races.

There were a number of critics that implored Hamlin to sit out the rest of the season and recuperate from the serious compression fracture he suffered at Fontana, that he needed complete rest and he was in effect hurting both himself and his team by playing hurt.

To his credit, Hamlin turned a deaf ear to the naysayers. And while admittedly his performance suffered, particularly in the middle of the season, he persevered and tuned out both his critics and the pain.

But no medicine could have made Hamlin feel better than the win at Homestead. Sure, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship the same day, but Hamlin got exactly the kind of dose he needed: to go out a winner and build upon that momentum going into 2014.

“As the season got further towards the end, I started feeling better and better, and our performance just really started going with it,” he said. “Hopefully, my results (in 2014) go with all the hard work I’ve put in because I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that I’m well for this year. I don’t want to be the weak link, like I was during the summer, I feel like, for our team.”

So with the season opener now less than 10 days away, how is Hamlin feeling?

“I haven’t had anything, really,” he said when asked if he’s had any lingering pain. “Everything’s been good. I just feel so much stronger than I have been, so it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I think that really everything’s roses from here on out and we’ll see how it goes.”

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NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Following his victory in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel arrived in Russia on Thursday targeting a third win of the year to extend his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

Not since 2004 has a Ferrari driver made such a good start to a season, putting Vettel in contention for a fifth world title this year – although with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hot on his tail, it will have to be a hard-earned success.

The fourth round of the year sees F1 head to the Olympic city of Sochi, which hosted the winter games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom played host to its first grand prix the same year, and is now a key part of Russia’s post-Olympic legacy.

Bringing you all of the latest news and interviews ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Will Buxton brings you Paddock Pass.

 

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.