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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Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.