In fact, after his victory last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Hamlin offered an open invitation to “any fan to want to come to the ‘dark side.’ ”
But what exactly does Hamlin’s ‘dark side’ world encompass, how did he get there and why is he so willing to embrace it and so publicly, such as having a podcast?
We explored these questions and more with him in an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com:
Do you really see yourself as ‘NASCAR’s most polarizing figure’ as advertised on Dirty Mo Media’s web site?
“I think over the last six months, it’s probably worked its way in that direction. I think the brunt of the noise is certainly showing that. For positive or negative, I think it’s overall getting more of a reaction. My analytics people have seen it for a while on our social channels, although we’re not super-popular, we do get a fair amount of engagement versus other drivers. I think it’s because people get a reaction out of it.”
After your Bristol win, you said fans are welcome to join the ‘dark side.’ What is Denny Hamlin, the ‘dark side’?
“Maybe it’s that you like my style on and off the track. I am more outspoken. I do talk a bunch of junk. I always believed superstars are people you should be able to relate to but they are also able to do things you aren’t able to do. If a superstar to you is someone who does the same thing as you, such as, ‘I’m a farmer and I like farmer NASCAR drivers.’ Well, how are they a superstar? You’re just alike. Superstars should be able to do things you can’t do. NASCAR fans are different, they are different than other sports fans in that sense. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just different than why I admire an all-star basketball player for instance. He’s able to do shit I can’t even comprehend. I know I’m not capable of doing those things – that’s what I admire about them. If someone is super-motivating in their words, I resonate with that type of person. Like a Deion Sanders, I resonate with his words. Now, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way because he’s brash and he’s confident.
Race winner Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry
Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images
“But I’m brash and I’m confident, too, and I like that. Like my girlfriend Jordan, she’s like, ‘Ugh, Deion.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? This guy’s great. Look what he’s doing. Forget his words. Look at what he’s doing. He’s motivating young men. He’s finding talent where no one else is looking. He’s finding the extra 10 percent out of these kids’ souls – something nobody else was able to bring out of them. That’s special.’ I think it just takes a certain type of person accept it and not everyone is accepting of it.”
Do you feel at this point in your career it’s easier to take this view than if it was 15 years ago just starting at JGR?
“Absolutely, 100 percent. I’ve even had talks with Joe (Gibbs) about it. I just wanted to make sure that I’m never going too far. I still do represent a huge company in FedEx and Sport Clips and all these big companies. He said they’ve been good – not heard a word. He says there’s a lot of energy around me and what I’m doing. I’m blessed to be with people who support me and let me be myself because, honestly, I don’t think a lot of the NASCAR drivers out there have that liberty. It’s unfortunate. This is what we need more of – guys who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. I just think that’s good for our sport in the long term. But everyone is different. Some of these guys may have grown up pretty sheltered and racing is all they ever did. I just came from absolutely nothing and made it and made a bunch of money doing it and started a race team and been successful on the track and now I’m just having fun. And I get to have fun just being myself.”
I would argue you seem to love this sport now more than you ever have. Am I wrong?
“No, you’re not wrong. I enjoy the process. Every year is a new challenge for me. All these younger guys keep getting better. How am I going to beat them, right? I worried quite a bit when we went from the Gen 6 car to Next Gen. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to lose my car advantage that I had with Joe Gibbs Racing with their chassis and their aero and all the other stuff. Shit, now everyone is going to have the same thing I got.’ And then SMT (data) came out and I was, ‘Well, hell, now I won’t have any secrets on short tracks anymore. How am I going to beat these guys?’ Every time I gained an edge, it gets taken away. So, every year the competition is getting better and every year I ask, ‘Where am I going to find an edge?’ And every year, I find a way and find an area to exploit that not many other people do.”
One of your on-track issues was with Kyle Larson, a good friend of yours. Is it difficult to navigate the competition side with people you have personal relationships with off the track?
“It’s always tough. Friendships off the race track, I think at times fans view them as we should be treated or looked at like teammates. That’s very, very tough to navigate because first, your team doesn’t care about that. They don’t care about your personal relationships or that you hang out or this, that or the other. They just care about getting 110 percent effort from me to win for them on any given day. I admit – I think I’m a good teammate – but I’m not probably the best teammate. I’m selfish. I like to win for myself. If that’s a negative, then it’s a negative trait. But I can tell you the guys that have been on my team for 51 victories have really appreciated my selfishness at times. It just part of sports that’s very difficult and another topic I’ve had conversations with Joe about it.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Express Toyota Camry
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
“We’re supposed to work together for six days and then go race on the seventh. But everyone goes to compete for their own individual self and that’s really hard to come to terms with. I’m in an even weirder position because I have two cars that I own (at 23XI Racing) that I have to race against. So, I just really try on Sundays to focus on myself and whatever it takes for myself to succeed. The teammate stuff and ownership stuff have to come second.”
What is it you like most about doing the podcast? I’m sure there were many contributing factors, but why is it worth it to you now to just go out there and say whatever it is you want to?
“I think it’s because I did notice over time that my words would be the topic of a headline in the media but they don’t have time to put my whole 20-minute transcript in my article. It’s bits and pieces. To be fair to them, they’re trying to concise this thing down a little bit. I think the podcast just gives me a little longer extended period to talk about subjects that I want to talk about. Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. just really pressed me hard on it for a while. Financially, it made good sense to me given the time it was going to take from my schedule and what I would receive from it. It was just too good of an offer.
“He reminded me I was already talking about the sport every week in the media center. He said at least you’ll get paid for it. I was doing it already. He’s been great with it. I’ve enjoyed it. I honestly have enjoyed doing it. Now, of course, there are weeks where I do dread it. I may be in a pissed off mood; I don’t want to do it. I have to go down there and be unbiased and sometimes that means singing the praises of some driver I’m not favorable towards. I feel like I’ve been very fair to everyone, even guys I’ve had run-ins with. I’m not afraid to rip them one week because I think they made a stupid move and then sing their praises about how great they were the next week. I feel like that’s my job, to tell it like it is. It’s been a success. With as much time as I’ve been spending on it, it’s been a minimum takeaway from me for a much bigger gain.”