Our 2014 Chase Journey
Hear from Denny Hamlin each week as he leads the #11 team through the Chase.
Our playoffs start this weekend in Chicago, and the upcoming 10-race stretch breathes new life into our #11 FedEx team. We haven’t shown the speed yet that we need to contend for this championship, but the new format will provide for some great racing and as we have seen over the years, anything can happen.
It is great to be back in the Chase following a disappointing season last year. Obviously, accidents are part of our sport, but the injury that kept me out of the car made me miss the playoffs for the first time in my career. It was difficult to come to the race track at the end of the year knowing our team wasn’t part of the Chase conversation, but I think it made everyone work harder to make sure it didn’t happen again. And, the win in the season-finale in Miami gave us a great boost heading into the off-season and the new year.
We had an up-and-down regular season in 2014. We had good cars for the most part of the year, but until recently, hadn’t shown the consistency needed to contend for wins week-in and week-out. Our restrictor-plate program has been great, and the win at Talladega earlier this year gave us a berth in the Chase.
I really think the new Chase format sets up well for our team. We have proven that we can win at almost every track in the Chase, including the last four — Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. The key for us will be to display some consistency over the first six races to give ourselves a shot in the last four. If we can stay in the top-12 after the first segment, Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega has the chance to really shake up the field.
This weekend in Chicago will be a big test for us. We don’t have the results to reflect how we have run there in the past, but with five mile-and-a-half tracks in the Chase, it will be a good gauge for how our intermediate program stacks up against the competition.
Speaking of the competition, there are some great drivers and teams we’re going up against this year. It will be intense on the track and in the garage, and hopefully fun to follow for the fans.
Thank you for the support throughout the years, and be sure to tune in Sunday to cheer on the #11 FedEx Toyota.
It was a great start to our Chase with a sixth place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. It was important for our FedEx team to get a clean, consistent run out of the gate to put ourselves in a decent spot for the final two weeks of the first playoff segment.
Our organization at Joe Gibbs Racing has been working hard preparing these cars for the Chase. It was no secret that we were a little behind to some of the other teams in the regular season, but we have gotten better over the last couple months and knew we had to bring our best stuff to the track to have a chance.
Obviously, we showed last Sunday that our FedEx Camry was good, we passed a lot of cars and put together a solid day. That makes me optimistic for the next few weeks.
We head to New Hampshire this weekend, a place our team has had a lot of success at over the years. It will be important to see how much our short track program has improved. Sunday will be a big test. I would love to be able to get a win and transfer into the second Chase segment and remove any doubt. New Hampshire is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. It’s flat and worn out and really makes the drivers work hard to get the car to rotate in the center of the corner to get a good run off.
Either way, we need to make sure we take care of business all weekend by getting a good starting spot and being smooth in the race. With only 300 laps, it doesn’t give you much time to overcome mistakes.
What a difference a week can make.
I mentioned in the post last week about the importance of a mistake-free day at New Hampshire to put our FedEx team in prime position to advance out of the first round of the Chase playoffs this Sunday at Dover. Unfortunately, all the hard work and preparation that the guys put into that race car fell apart because of a mechanical issue out of our control.
We had a really fast car throughout the weekend in New Hampshire, and I knew that if things fell into place, we could’ve competed for the win. We led some laps early, but an issue with the fuel probe, and getting gas into the car, ultimately cost us a good finish and put us in a hole heading into this weekend.
Dover will be a wild race for the fans to watch and follow as drivers on the bubble, myself included, try to fight and claw into the top-12 in points when the checkered flag falls. The race is a bit longer, 400 laps, but Dover is fast-paced, so one bad adjustment and one long green flag run can put you in a tough spot to dig yourself out of.
Fortunately, we have brought some pretty good cars to Dover the last few years. I didn’t run well there at all to start my career, but really, over the last two or three seasons, we have been fast. It will be important to get the weekend off to a good start by qualifying well on Friday. That will ease a lot of the pressure because it will give you a good pit selection and put you in front of a lot of traffic to start the race.
We can certainly advance onto the next Chase segment with a good finish on Sunday, but it will take a little help. The competition has elevated its performance the last couple weeks, and as you have seen, anything can happen. As a race fan myself, it will be fun to watch it play out. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Our team has advanced to the second round of the Chase playoffs, and now we’re back in this championship battle. It was a true testament to everyone on the FedEx team to put New Hampshire in the rearview mirror, focus on Dover and put together a solid weekend to advance to the Contender Round.
After practice and qualifying on Friday, I was confident that we had a FedEx Camry capable of getting the job done. We might not have had the speed to contend for the win, but starting third was very important for the clean air and good pit stall.
During the race, we could never get the car to handle well enough to make up ground, and we got a little unlucky by having to start on the inside line for most of the restarts. However, when the checkered flag fell, we had moved back into the top-12. That was our goal. Now we live to fight another three races as we keep trying to move on in this Chase.
This weekend at Kansas will be a big test for us. When we won there in 2012, it was on the old surface, and we haven’t quite run as well as we would have liked since they repaved the track. I love driving on old, worn-out surfaces where tires fall off and handling means so much. With the newer surface, Kansas is smooth and fast, but aerodynamics play an important role in passing and how you finish.
It will be key for us to get a solid finish on Sunday to set ourselves up for the final two races of the round, at Charlotte and Talladega. Charlotte is a good track for our team and we were able to win at Talladega in May, but as you know, restrictor-plate racing is so unpredictable.
It was a great start to the Contender Round for our #11 FedEx team at Kansas on Sunday. We knew that it would be difficult to compete for the win based on our speeds in practice, so a top-10 run at arguably the toughest place for us was the best-case scenario, and to finish seventh really gets us off on the right foot in this treacherous three-race segment.
Although we have a victory at Kansas, it really is a different track since they repaved it a couple years ago. Our cars seemed to have lost the handle on the place, but we have been slowly gaining on it.
In qualifying Friday, I knew we were up against a big challenge, and to start 25th really put us behind most of the other Chase drivers at the drop of the green flag. However, Kansas has shown the past few years to be unpredictable, and we saw that again on Sunday. Every team has faced some kind of adversity at some point during the Chase, and now the momentum has turned a little bit.
Heading into Charlotte this weekend, I’m confident of another strong run for us. We have had a lot of success there in the past, in terms of consistency, but just haven’t been able to breakthrough for a win yet. It will be important to make sure our car has some adjustability in it, because practice is during the afternoon and the race is at night.
Another solid finish at Charlotte will give us a little breathing room heading into Talladega, where we know that anything can happen.
On Friday, our Joe Gibbs Racing organization will be hosting its annual Fan Fest at the shop. It’s a great chance for me to meet and interact with the fans. They’re the reason we are able to go out and compete each weekend and I’m grateful for their support.
I’m sure you could tell by watching Saturday’s race at Charlotte, and what happened after the race, that the intensity of this new Chase format is at an all-time high. Every lap and every position and every point matters so much in these three-race segments, and the drivers and teams realize what’s at stake.
In the grand scheme of things, a ninth-place finish at Charlotte after battling a tough race car throughout the night would have been acceptable for our team. We missed the setup a bit and fell back in the running order. However, we fought our way back after a couple good restarts and great pit stops, and we were in position at the end of the race to get a great finish. Without the last caution, we would’ve finished third or fourth, and had a decent cushion heading to Talladega this weekend.
That’s why I was so upset after the race. One the final restart, I knew Brad (Keselowski) was going to be aggressive. He has had fast cars all year and has won a lot of races, but in this new Chase system, finds himself on the outside looking in. He needed a win. Unfortunately, by his aggression and sending me up the track, I went from third to ninth in the final two laps, costing us six vital points in the Chase.
We are still in decent shape in the big picture. Obviously, if we would’ve wrecked there and lost more than just six points, things would be different. We still finished ninth and still have a chance to advance this weekend.
But, Talladega is so unpredictable. It will be important for us to miss the wrecks and finish the race. The intensity this weekend will be even higher than Charlotte, because so much is out of our control.
If you saw Sunday’s race at Talladega, you could see the intensity among all the drivers vying for one of the remaining spots in the Chase. There were a handful of teams, like ours, that needed to avoid the wrecks and get a decent finish to move on. There were others who could only advance with a win. With all of those agendas playing out on the race track, it made for an action-packed day for the fans and stressful day for us drivers.
I’m not one that likes to ride in the back at these restrictor-plate tracks, but for our championship chances, that’s what we needed to do. Even back there, however, something could have happened, as we unfortunately saw with our teammate Kyle (Busch). Positions change every lap and the point standings fluctuated, but we knew if we could avoid trouble, we had a decent chance of moving on.
Now, with another three-race segment in front of us, I think our FedEx team has as good a shot as anyone to win the title. I still think we are lacking a little bit of speed overall, but at Martinsville this weekend, it’s about the driver and how the car is handling. A win on Sunday would put us in the final four in Miami.
This Chase segment is where we really have to get aggressive. I think for the first six races, there was an element of consistency among drivers that have advanced, knowing that bad luck and other circumstances would take drivers out of contention. Now, with only eight drivers left and four spots up for grabs, we’re going to need to run in the top-five each week and contend for victories to move on.
Obviously, we have had a lot of success at these last few tracks. I have said all year that if we could make it to the final eight, this new system really plays into our favor, starting with Sunday’s race in my home state of Virginia. Hopefully we can be up front and battle for another grandfather clock at Martinsville.
I hate to be a bit disappointed after an eighth-place finish at Martinsville, but that race was an opportunity for us to make a statement to start this Eliminator Round of the Chase and we came up just a bit short. We had a very strong car for much of the day and led a lot of laps, but the cautions and the restarts didn’t fall our way at the end. That’s just racing.
However, Martinsville is really the one track in this segment where there’s a good chance something out of your control can take you out of a good day. The racing is tight and drivers need to be aggressive and physical to move forward, so it’s easy to get caught up in a wreck, as you saw with some Chase drivers. To get out of there unscathed, so to speak, is certainly a positive, but we’ll need to be better these next two weeks to advance to the final race in Miami with a shot at this championship.
Heading to Texas this weekend will be a big test for our #11 FedEx team. Although Texas is a fast, intermediate track, where I think our team has lacked a little speed this year, it is also a track that has good tire falloff and really benefits the drivers with good handling race cars. We were able to drive to the front earlier this year and lead laps at Texas, so I’m confident that now with our cars getting better each week, that we have a chance to challenge for the win. A victory would be huge for us and eliminate any stress about advancing on points the following week at Phoenix.
Also important for us this week is the test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Most of the championship challenging teams, including our Joe Gibbs Racing organization, are there on Tuesday and Wednesday to get our cars ready for that final race. It has been a great track for the #11 team over the years, and hopefully we put ourselves in position to try to win there again.
It will be a busy week and very intense race at Texas, but I believe that if we can execute how we should, we’ll be right in the thick of the championship picture.
Heading into the final race of the Eliminator Round this weekend at Phoenix, we find our FedEx team in a pretty decent spot in the Chase standings to try to advance to the final race with a shot at the championship.
I definitely had mixed emotions after the race at Texas last Sunday. Obviously, a top-10 finish after seeing other Chase competitors suffer misfortune put us in the points lead with a little bit of a cushion for Phoenix. However, I really thought we were going to be more competitive as a team at Texas, so I was a little discouraged with how we ran during the race.
The way the Chase has played out, it really has rewarded consistency and solid finishes. I knew that early in the Chase — the first two segments — as long as we could avoid mistakes and get top-10 runs, some teams, by way of mechanical issues or bad luck, would almost eliminate themselves. Now in this third segment, I thought we would need to be consistently finishing in the top-five. But, like the previous segments, things have happened to some of the other guys that resulted in finishes worse than where they were running for most of the day.
Phoenix has been a decent track for our team over the years. We won there in my first year with Darian [Grubb, crew chief] in 2012, and we got the pole in my first Cup race there in 2005. That was really my first accomplishment in the series that made me believe that I belonged in the sport with these great teams and drivers.
We’ll need to have another solid, mistake-free performance on Sunday to advance to Miami. It will most likely be the same drivers at the front of the field that we have seen the last couple years at Phoenix, so we need to make sure we take care of our business throughout the weekend to position ourselves to make another run at the Sprint Cup Series title.
I have to admit, during the middle of the race on Sunday at Phoenix, I thought our good run this season could end. We had an unfortunate issue on pit road with a flat tire, we were mired back in the pack and the car just didn’t handle well in the dirty air.
However, everyone on our FedEx team dug deep, we got some timely cautions when we needed them, and we punched a ticket to the Championship Round of the Chase this weekend in Miami.
Phoenix is a difficult place to pass, so I knew when we fell back to 36th, it was going to be a tall task to come back from. But, anything can happen in racing, and we stayed focused on the task at hand and ended up with a top-five run.
Sunday is going to be a lot of fun for our team. We have been considered underdogs throughout the year and haven’t really performed how we wanted to, but here we are with a shot at the title. We are playing with house money, so to speak, so anything that happens in Sunday’s race will be extra. There won’t be any pressure on us, and we can go there and execute.
We had a great test at Miami a few weeks ago and it has been a great track for us over the years. It’s wide and the tires fall off. It really suits my driving style.
I believe that we have a legitimate shot at winning this championship. It’s time to bring the NASCAR title to Memphis.
Here we go.
Although we ultimately didn’t come home with the Sprint Cup trophy, I could not be more proud of our entire #11 FedEx team for the championship effort last weekend in Miami. We were underdogs all season and an afterthought in the Chase, and we made it to the final weekend with a shot at the title and gave them everything we had.
We certainly didn’t need those late-race cautions. Our car was so strong in the second half of the race, and so good on the long run, but we just never got the opportunity to show our potential. In some races, the cautions fall in your favor and sometimes they don’t. Unfortunately on Sunday, they did not.
I have to congratulate Kevin [Harvick] and Rodney [Childers, crew chief] and everyone on their team for the performance this year. They were strong all season and are deserving champions. It was fun to race with Kevin, Ryan (Newman) and Joey [Logano] on Sunday, and I think it was a great race — and Chase format — for the fans.
I’m obviously disappointed in the outcome, but definitely encouraged heading into the off-season and next season. Our entire organization worked hard to get the cars better and better each week, and when it mattered most, we had our best car of the year. That’s a testament to the leadership from Coach (Gibbs) and the strength of the race team.
The 2014 season was another up and down year for us, but the support from our fans never wavered. Thank you for the encouragement through it all, and I promise we’ll be back in the thick of things again next year.
I hope everyone has a happy and safe holiday season, and see you in Daytona!