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Our 2015 Chase Journey – Direct from Denny Hamlin

September 23, 2015

Notes from Denny Hamlin each week as he leads the #11 team through the Chase.

Entries by date: 9/15, 9/22, 9/29, 10/06, 10/21, 10/28, 11/04, 11/10, 11/17

November 17, 2015:

The stage is set for NASCAR’s championship event at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, and although our FedEx team is not part of that again this year, we have a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate in Kyle Busch there with a shot at the title.

Last year, I felt really good going into the weekend. Homestead has become one of our better tracks, and after just the first practice, I knew that we had a car to compete for the win. It ended up that way as we were in the lead with less than 20 laps to go, but a couple late cautions gave the guys with fresher tires the advantage and Kevin (Harvick) capitalized.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out from an outside perspective this year. I’m bummed that we’re not in it, because I really think we were one of the best four teams this year, so my mindset going into the weekend is to try to win the race for our team, and help the organization win its first title since 2005. Coach Gibbs has been instrumental in my career, and after everything he has gone through over the years, seeing him back on top in this sport would be special to see.

We have had a lot of moments to be proud of this year. Winning a race for the 10th-straight year is a proud accomplishment. Winning at Martinsville and in the Chase at Chicago, as well as the All-Star Race, is a pretty good season. We were competitive and ran up front for much of the season, something we really haven’t done for the past couple years. It’s a testament to the hard work inside the organization, the chemistry among the drivers, and constantly pushing ourselves to be the fastest we can be.

I have to thank you for all of the support throughout the year. We’ll be back in this championship fight soon, I promise.

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November 10, 2015:

Sunday was a long day for our #11 team at Texas, with a mechanical issue in the fuel system forcing us to the garage multiple times early in the race, ending our chances at a win, and making for a frustrating afternoon.

Texas has become one of my favorite intermediate tracks, but for whatever reason, we didn’t handle it the way we needed to. I was optimistic heading into the weekend, but with rain and changing weather, we never could keep up with the track conditions. It was a race that we’ll put behind us, and hopefully learn something from in terms of our cars.

This week will be a very rewarding one for me. I’m going to spend Veteran’s Day in Memphis, home of FedEx, helping with a couple different charitable efforts around town. First, Mike Conley (Grizzlies point guard) and I will have a little shooting contest after his practice. FedEx is going to donate $11,000 to the USO in honor of our numbers — both #11 — on 11/11. Our military families do so much for us, and I’m honored to play a small role in raising awareness and resources for the USO.

After that, I’ll get to tour the Target House, where families of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patients stay on a long-term basis during treatment. Like the children’s hospital at VCU, I have seen firsthand the amazing work that St. Jude does and I’m proud to also make an $11,000 donation to St. Jude on behalf of the Denny Hamlin Foundation to help continue their mission.

Phoenix should be another great race on Sunday. The Chase is still wide open, and hopefully my teammates Kyle (Busch) and Carl (Edwards) can advance to Homestead with a chance to give Coach (Joe) Gibbs his first championship since 2005.

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November 04, 2015:

It was quite the eventful day for us – and others – at Martinsville on Sunday. We overcame a pair of pit road speeding penalties, got caught up in an early wreck, but managed to be there at the end and come home third.

Our current position in the points and past success at Martinsville made Sunday’s goal simple – we just wanted to win. Anything short of that, in my opinion, would be disappointing. But, to have so many things happen during the race that sent us to the back at a really tough race track, finishing third is not a bad way to end the day.

The FedEx Camry just wouldn’t turn early in the run, and we only had one or two long green flag runs in the whole race. We were just way too tight to start out, and I lost so much ground on restarts, that by the time the car came to life after 30 or 40 laps, it was tough to make it all back. Either way, I’m proud of the fight in our team, and still feel like we are one of the strongest cars on the track each week.

There will be a lot of opinions on what happened in Sunday’s race, and unfortunately, circumstances have dictated some things the last few weeks of this Chase. There is so much on the line for us drivers and these race teams, and NASCAR certainly has a difficult job in sorting it all out.

Texas is another great track for us. It’s big and fast, and the surface has really aged well over the last few years, giving drivers different options around the corners to find grip. The goal remains the same, and that is to go out there and win the race. We can pin our ears back with nothing to lose.

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October 28, 2015:

We all knew that the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing would make Talladega a stressful weekend and a true wild card event in the Chase. Unfortunately for us, self-inflicted mistakes cost us a berth in the next round and a very disappointing end to our championship hopes.

With the long green flag run to start the race, it was imperative for us to run clean in the draft, avoid putting our car in risky spots and get on and off pit road without issue. You never think something like a roof hatch failure could take you out of a race. We run the hatch on (restrictor) plate tracks for safety and small aerodynamic advantages. A failure in the weld caused it to come loose and we had to pit multiple times to get it fixed.

That stuff happens in racing. It’s extremely disappointing considering the speed we have shown this year and the tracks left on the schedule, but it’s important to remember the bigger picture.

After Talladega, I spent Monday and Tuesday in Charleston, S.C., for the fourth annual Pro-Am Jam charity concert and golf tournament that I host with Mark Bryan from Hootie and the Blowfish. We had a great time and raised a lot of money for some very deserving charities, including the Student Transportation of America Education Foundation, Carolina Studios and the Denny Hamlin Foundation, which benefits children with cystic fibrosis. We have done a lot of work in the Richmond area and at the children’s hospital at VCU. I’m proud of the effort and generosity from all the sponsors and celebrities that donated time and resources to make the event another success.

On the track, there are still four races left in the year. Martinsville is obviously one that I circle on the calendar, given the success of our FedEx team there. We won at Martinsville earlier this year and believe we can do that again this weekend.

It will be important to refocus our team and try to win as many races as we can before the end of the year. Thank you for the support.

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October 21, 2015:

Heading into Kansas last weekend, I had in my head that a seventh-place finish at that track would be the target position for our team. It has not been one of my best tracks the last few years, and we have struggled to find the right balance in our car.

At the drop of the green flag, I thought we would be in big trouble to even get to seventh. The car was not responding to my feel and our pre-race adjustments, and after starting fifth, we were heading in the wrong direction. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) kept our team calm, mapped out a plan for changes to the car, and we dug in our heels.

Methodically, we worked our way back up into the top-15 and then top-10 through the middle part of the race, and our strategy got us up into the top-five coming to the end. The changes helped tighten up the car and I began to work through traffic.

Then all of a sudden, after the final caution, I was on the front row with a shot to win the race. If you told me I could finish second at Kansas, I would’ve taken it and run, but after finishing second, I was disappointed we didn’t win the race. The opportunity to win these races takes so much work that it was hard to miss that shot. However, the runner-up result exceeded our expectations for the weekend and we are in a decent spot heading into the final race of this Chase round at Talladega.

Although our FedEx team is second in the points with an 18-point cushion, anything can happen at Talladega. Restrictor-plate racing is unpredictable, and in an instant you can get caught up in someone else’s mistake and ruin your day. All the teams left in the Chase will have different strategies on how to advance, and I’m sure it will be a nervous 500 miles for a lot of drivers.

The only thing we can do is map out a game plan for the race, adjust to the changing circumstances and hopefully be there at the end to advance.

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October 6, 2015:

Our team is on to the next round of the Chase and this Contender segment will be the most important to our season. It ends with Talladega in a couple weeks, and the unpredictable nature of restrictor-plate racing makes it that much more imperative to start off with a good finish Saturday night in Charlotte.

It’s been a nice couple weeks from a pressure standpoint in the Chase. Winning at Chicago and punching our ticket to the next round allowed us to relax and have fun at the race track, just going for more victories. Sunday was a struggle at Dover because of mistakes on pit road and losing track position, but we took solace in knowing that the points would be reset and everyone would be back on a level playing field starting this week.

Charlotte has historically been a good track for the #11 team. We haven’t won a points race there, but won this year’s All-Star Race. It was one of the biggest wins of my career, and gives us confidence heading into this weekend.

If you remember, last year was pretty wild at Charlotte. As these elimination rounds go on, and every single position matters on the track, you’re going to see drivers giving less and taking more, and with that comes the potential for incidents on and off the track. There is so much at stake in this Chase format that we try to get every point we can.

The goal for our FedEx team is the same as it has been every week: win. I know we’ll have a fast car, but Saturday night is a long race, and it’ll be important to manage our track position, limit mistakes in the pits and be there at the end with a shot to go to Victory Lane.

Emotions will run high. Saturday night on NBC continues our quest to win the championship. You won’t want to miss it.

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September 29, 2015:

It was another great run for our team Sunday at New Hampshire. I don’t think we had the best car at any point in the race, but we were one of the top two or three throughout the day, Dave [Rogers, crew chief] called the strategy perfectly, and it was a solid finish for the FedEx Camry.

We aren’t exactly sure what happened on the last run, but I felt something wrong with the right-front about 20 laps after the final restart, and I just wanted to make sure I made it to the finish without issue. We had fresher tires and more fuel than almost everyone in front of us, so I was able to push the car really hard on the restart and make some aggressive moves to get up to the front.

I knew the 4 [Kevin Harvick] was saving fuel when I got to his bumper, and my goal was to push him as hard as possible because I knew he was close. We were good to go to the end, but he had just a little bit better balance. Then, when Matt [Kenseth] got around us, I knew that I needed to conserve my equipment.

I’m happy for Matt and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing for another win. It has been an amazing year from the team’s standpoint, and I’m just hoping it can continue through these last eight weeks. For me personally, I don’t think our #11 team has ever had this run of sustained consistency in my career. Selfishly, I hoped to have won more races to this point, but we have been in the top-five week in and week out over these last few months, and as a driver, that’s really all you can ask for — a chance to win.

The key will be maintaining that speed through these next few weeks. The next round will be a big test for our team, but I’m confident that we can put together the finishes we need to make another run at my first Sprint Cup title.

This weekend at Dover, we will work hard to have a smooth, mistake-free race, and learn as much as possible about our cars that we can apply to the rest of the year. Our position affords us the opportunity to try some things and take some chances, and we plan on doing that.

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September 22, 2015:

What a way to start the Chase!

Sunday at Chicago was a very eventful day for our team, spinning on the second lap and ending up in Victory Lane. I think you have to go back to my rookie season in 2006 and my very first career Cup win at Pocono for the last time we came from the back of the field to win.

I knew in practice on Friday that we had a fast car, but we just missed the qualifying setup for our mock run and then the rain cancelled it. Starting 29th is tough anywhere, but certainly difficult on the mile-and-a-half tracks like Chicago where track position is key.

From the drop of the green flag, we were on rails. I passed a bunch of cars on the first lap and got a few more before Turn 3. Heading off into that corner, I’m not sure what happened, but we made contact with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger) and spun in front of the back half of the field. I was just hoping we didn’t get hit because I knew how good of a car I had. Luckily, we avoided any damage, but lost a lap to get fresh tires and small repairs.

Typically, early trouble can cause a team to try to overcome everything in a short time. For us on Sunday, we stayed calm. We knew that the cautions would eventually come, and the FedEx Ground Toyota was fast enough to get back to the front. I just didn’t think it would take that long.

The yellows definitely fell in our favor the second half of the race. We regained the track position we lost and I thought we were going to finish in the top-five. Everything changed on that last caution. I couldn’t tell how many cars stayed out in front of me, but was hoping it was only one. That way, I could restart on the front row, where anything can happen. When I saw that I was restarting third, I wasn’t sure of our chances to win. However, I got a great restart, cleared the 24 (Jeff Gordon) and the 41 (Kurt Busch) by Turn 2 and just tried to get into a rhythm. It helped that there was a battle for second, and I pulled away.

It was such a great win for our #11 team. We have shown speed and consistency throughout the last few months, but just haven’t been able to put it all together for a victory. Sunday we did.

It will be nice to go to New Hampshire and Dover the next couple weeks with no pressure, and just work on our race cars and try to win more races.

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September 15, 2015:

Hello team members!

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship begins this weekend in Chicago, and I’m looking forward to another chance at a title with this #11 FedEx Racing team. We were close again last year and we are hopeful that this year is the one to bring home the Sprint Cup Series trophy.

It was a wild and exciting regular season for our team. We got a win early at Martinsville that all but assured us our ninth Chase berth, and Joe Gibbs Racing has had very fast cars as an organization throughout the year. I would’ve liked to have won a couple more races before the Chase, but our teammates were just a little bit better on a given week. We have been consistently fast and put together solid runs, and hopefully that continues.

As you saw during last year’s new Chase format, it’s important to stay consistent and minimize mistakes to move on in the elimination rounds. We weren’t the best car by any means in 2014, but by staying out of trouble and capitalizing on some opportunities, we advanced to the Championship 4 with a shot at the title in Homestead.

I think it will be harder and harder to advance as this new format continues. Teams last year were still figuring out how the system works and what you need to do to avoid elimination. With one year in the books, it will get more difficult to stay alive in the Chase playoffs. I think we have a great shot, though.

The first race is in Chicago on Sunday. It hasn’t been a great track for our team in terms of finishes, but we have gotten better over the years and I believe we have great cars for the intermediate tracks. Sunday will be about putting ourselves in position to run up front, lead laps and compete for the win. A win would guarantee us moving on to the next round, and that will be our focus each week.

Thank you for your support and look for the #11 FedEx car in victory lane!


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