RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield native Denny Hamlin spoke to members of the media on Friday ahead of the start of Daytona 500 week next week.
The week begins Tuesday with the Busch Clash exhibition race, which will be run on the road course at Daytona International Speedway. The field for the Daytona 500 will be set in dual qualifying races on Thursday, and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season begins Feb. 14 with the annual running of “The Great American Race.”
Hamlin seeks his third consecutive 500 win behind the wheel of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“This is a big opportunity for us, my team and myself personally,” Hamlin said. “I just never would have imagined we’d be in this position by any means; especially five years ago when we didn’t have any. I always think about in these situations, anytime I get asked, I think about the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn’t make the right decision at the end to finish it off. It would be by far my biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”
Hamlin also reacted to the closure of Southside Speedway in Chesterfield at the end of last year, a track where Hamlin began his racing journey. He said he considers local short tracks small businesses, and it’s unfortunate that they, like plenty of others affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, have had to make some very tough decisions over the last year.
“It’s a hard business to be in,” he said. “I hate seeing these tracks that have been around for forever shutting down, but we’re seeing it in the real world as well. Restaurants that have been open forever are shutting down. Short tracks are a small business. They’re not a big business by any means and rely on people going through that front gate. They’ve got to pay a purse, and the guys that are racing are racing for little money compared to what the cost of it is. The whole thing is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Hamlin added the local short track scene continues to be an important factor in the development of future NASCAR drivers, and that the sport needs those facilities to stay open.
“It’s no different than any other sport,” he said. “It starts in high school, junior college and keeps going up and up until you find yourself in the pros. So we need that base level to keep the sport strong in the long run.”
Over the offseason, it was announced Hamlin had teamed up with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing, which will field the No. 23 Toyota in the Cup Series with driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. behind the wheel.
Hamlin has had to manage his time wisely between obligations to the new team and his obligations at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he recently signed a multi-year contract extension, and he said that on Feb. 1 he had to flip the switch and square in on getting ready for the season at JGR.
“My focus now is really on the 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship,” he said. “That’s where, ultimately, it’s going to be the best thing for me in the long run is to continue to be successful. That will be a good thing for my race team as well. As long as I keep my on-track success I can continue to be an asset, and that’s something that is good for them as well.”
Hamlin said he will be devoting a day or so to overseeing operations and tending to obligations at 23XI Racing, but largely his post-race work and preparations for the following week’s event over the course of a given week will remain unchanged.