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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Fast Facts

Image courtesy Barber Motorsport Park
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Here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:

Race weekend: Friday, April 20 – Sunday, April 22

Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course (clockwise) in Birmingham, Alabama

Race distance: 90 laps / 207 miles

Entry List:  Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (PDF)

Push-to-pass parameters: 200 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 20 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate

Twitter: @BarberMotorPark @IndyCar, #HIGPA, #IndyCar

Event website: www.barberracingevents.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2017 race winner: Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet)

2017 Verizon P1 Award winner: Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet),1:06.9614, 123.653 mph

Qualifying lap record: Sebastien Bourdais, 1:06.6001, 124.324 mph, April 23, 2016 (Round 2 of knockout qualifying)

NBCSN qualifying telecast: Saturday, April 21 (4 p.m. ET, live)

NBCSN race telecast: Sunday, April 22 (3 p.m. ET, live)

Leigh Diffey will be the play-by-play announcer for NBCSN’s telecast of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are the pit reporters.

Radio broadcasts: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network is led by chief announcer Mark Jaynes, with analyst Anders Krohn. Turn reporters are Jake Query and Nick Yeoman, with Rob Howden and Michael Young reporting from the pits.

All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying is broadcast on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app and Verizon IndyCar Series practices are broadcast on  IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Video Streaming: All practice sessions will be available on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and on the INDYCAR YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/indycar)

At-track schedule (all times EASTERN):

Friday, April 20

12:15 p.m.-1 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

3:50-4:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4:55-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 21

11:50 a.m.-12:35 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, April 22

3 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – NBCSN on air

3:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command

3:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Race Notes:

* Alexander Rossi firmly established himself as a championship contender, claiming his first win of the season at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15. The 26-year-old Californian leads reigning series champion and defending Barber race winner Josef Newgarden by 22 points heading into this weekend’s race.

* The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be the ninth Verizon IndyCar Series event conducted at Barber Motorsports Park. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race in 2010.

* Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won at Barber Motorsports Park. Power won the race in 2011 and 2012, Hunter-Reay in 2013 and 2014, Newgarden in 2015 and 2017 and Pagenaud in 2016.

* Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won the pole position at Barber Motorsports Park. Pagenaud won the pole in 2016. Power claimed the pole position in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and Hunter-Reay won the pole in 2013.

* Three drivers have won the race from the pole – Will Power in 2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

* Scott Dixon has finished on the podium in seven of his eight previous starts at Barber Motorsports Park – including five runner-up finishes – but he has yet to finish on the top step of the podium at the picturesque road circuit.

* Eight drivers have competed in every Indy car race at Barber Motorsports Park – Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Castroneves is not entered this year.

* Team Penske has five wins at Barber Motorsports Park (2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017). Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing are the only other teams to win at the track. Andretti Autosport won in 2013 and 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ed Carpenter Racing won with Josef Newgarden in 2015.

* Six Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders – Rene Binder, Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, Matheus “Matt” Leist, Zach Veach and Robert Wickens – are entered this weekend. It is the most rookies entered for a Barber race since six rookies started in 2011.

*  Eighteen of the 24 drivers entered in the event have competed in Indy car races at Barber Motorsports Park. Ten entered drivers have led laps: Will Power 208, Ryan Hunter-Reay 93, Simon Pagenaud 87, Josef Newgarden 60, Scott Dixon 44, Graham Rahal 24, Charlie Kimball 14, Sebastien Bourdais 2, James Hinchcliffe 2 and Marco Andretti 1.

* Tony Kanaan seeks to start his 286th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Kanaan will attempt to make his 347th Indy car start, which ranks third on the all-time list.

* Scott Dixon has made 227 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the second-longest streak in Indy car racing. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has made 203 consecutive starts, which is the fourth-longest streak in Indy car racing.

* Scott Dixon, the longest-tenured driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, is fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with 41 wins. 2018 St. Petersburg race winner Sebastien Bourdais is sixth on the all-time list with 37 wins and Will Power ranks ninth on the all-time list with 32 wins.