Denny Hamlin on podcasting, his heart rate and mic-drop endings: 12 Questions

Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Denny Hamlin, driver for Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. You must pick one chore or obligation to do every day for a year. But if you do it every day for a year, you never have to do it again for the rest of your life. So what would you like to knock out forever?

Oh man, what is the one thing I hate to do? I don’t hate to do anything. I was gonna say go to the dentist, but I don’t have 365 trips left in me.

(Thinks for awhile) … Skin care.

Skin care? Like washing your face?

Just the whole regimen in the morning and at night. There’s many steps I have to take. I’m dehydrated a lot. I have to take in a ton of water, and it’s taken its toll being dehydrated on my skin. So over the last probably five years, I really have this regimen I stick to and I feel like it’s helping. But it takes a long time, and when you’re tired and want to go to bed, that 15 minutes is a pain in the a–.

2. Can you describe how you are as a passenger in a street car?

I’m a passive passenger. I usually will use that time to get on my phone and answer some emails. I’ll go back in the old archive to see who I have pushed to the side and try to catch back up. Unless there’s just heavy braking, heavy acceleration — definitely don’t like that.

3. What is an app on your phone you love using and think more people should know about?

Charles Schwab. Because I saw a statistic about 30-to-40-year-old adults not having any savings. If people would plan their financial future earlier in life — it’s easy to think about it when you’re 40 or 50 years old and you’re like, “Oh, s—.” I saw something like the average 40-year-old has $3,000 bucks or something, total.

My mom used to always tell me, “If you just put away this when you’re 20, here’s the difference it makes when you’re 60. And if you start when you’re 30, this is the difference it makes when you’re 60.”

4. What do you do to make yourself feel better when you’re having a crappy day?

I found myself having a crappy day two days ago. I was just in a funk mood, and I had a Zoom I just didn’t feel great about. I went to the race shop and I took Molly (his youngest daughter) there and she was playing around and instantly my day was better. So get me around my kids, it’s gonna make it better. I know that’s a very easy, cliche answer.

5. I’ve been asking readers to submit “Dear Abby”-type life questions and having a different one each week. So I picked this one for you: “My toddler has started saying swear words or copying what he hears his parents say when we’re getting on his older sibling’s case. What is the best way to get him to stop swearing?”

Molly said her first cuss word the other day and it was aimed at me. She says, “Daddy, stop saying ‘f—.’ And to hear a 5-year-old say that, it really got me right here in my soul. (Laughs) But she said it so purely, like it was so clear. And I was just thinking, “No, Molly. No, no, no.” But they understand even when I’m in the car and I’m playing music and maybe it has it in there — (the music) is not always the clean version. You turn it on, and sometimes it’s clean, sometimes it’s dirty. They do a good job of knowing when the words are coming up and then covering their ears because they know. And then if they do hear it, they know at this point not to say it.

But what do you do to get them to stop? You have to somehow explain this is an adult word and it’s used to express yourself or explain the emotion you have behind a statement. It’s no different than an alcoholic beverage; you’re not allowed to do it until you turn a certain age, because there are responsibilities that go with it. So you have to somehow explain that: It’s like an adult beverage and one day you will be allowed to say it, but now is not the time. It’s just inappropriate right now at your age.

6. This next one is a topical/societal debate-type thing. Right now there are estimated to be three to five million podcasts in the world and you added yours to the crowded landscape this year. That said, should more drivers have podcasts than they do now? There’s not very many who do. Has it been a positive or negative for you overall?

Well, it’s been a positive for me. I make pretty good money at it, and it’s what I was doing in the middle of the media center every weekend anyway. It’s allowed me to expand upon ideas or comments I had. Instead of taking a sentence here and a sentence there from a media session, I’m able to explain a little bit more about a given topic.

It’s what I love to do. Honestly, as busy as I am owning a team, driving for a team and having a podcast, those are the three things I love. I love running a business, I love driving, and I love talking about our sport. The goal behind this was to give people insight — give the avid fan an insider’s perspective of what’s going on that maybe you don’t hear about, a perspective from a driver who just got out of the race car three hours ago.

Those are all really positives. And I think if more drivers did it, it would help expand more content for our sport. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of it. Many drivers are very bound by their teams on what they say, what they do. I’ve been very blessed to be with sponsors and teams who let me be me, and they’re OK with that. So it’ll be tough. It’s gonna be tough to get them to do it. But I’d love to see more drivers have a weekly platform.

7. This is a wild-card question. Two years ago, during Championship 4 media day, you hinted about doing a mic drop if you won the championship. Since then, Martin Truex Jr. has sort of openly fantasized about it as well — until he re-signed. But there are contracts and things have to be decided a long while in advance. So is it possible we could ever see someone actually win the title and then immediately retire afterward?

With contracts the way they are, it would be difficult. You would have to plan it and it would have to be almost in a year you plan to call it quits. That, or have some sort of buyout in your contract.

So it’s very unlikely, especially in our sport. It’s not like other pro sports where you’re on a team and you’re playing one other team in the Super Bowl. There’s still many, many other drivers out there and many things that can change the outcome of your race. So the odds of you doing it in what you have already planned as your final year? Low, less than 2 percent.

8. In your career, what is the deal that came closest to happening that ended up not working out?

I really don’t know how close it really was, but I was close enough with Dale Jr. to have those conversations about moving to (Dale Earnhardt Inc.). I didn’t even have conversations with executives, it was just him. So I never really was close to any other deals as far as any other teams.

Now, as a driver who has representation, if something comes to me, it’s pretty much, “It’s here if you want to do it.” Like, it’s not “Hey, letting you know this is what’s going on, it’s getting close.” I pretty much know it’s either a done deal or not, and then I have the choice to do it.

So my thought in my brain at the time was, “Man, I could go over to DEI and be teammates with Dale Jr.?” I really contemplated that for a little while.

“‘Man, I could go over to DEI and be teammates with Dale Jr.?’ Hamlin remembers thinking about a possible move. “I really contemplated that for a little while.”(Jerry Markland / Getty Images)

9. Who is somebody you would be starstruck by when meeting them?

Denzel Washington. To me, he’s just the GOAT of all acting. Just everything he’s in is just amazing. I love the ability to change characters. He’s that guy for me.

10. What is the single most important skill a race-car driver can possess?

Race craft. I believe race craft gets you better finishes than what your speed or talent level will. With cars and trucks and everything being so similar nowadays, it’s how do you manage the race? How do you out-think someone, play chess when others are playing checkers, managing those risks.

Race craft is one of the things that is probably easiest to learn. You can’t learn talent, you can’t learn the natural ability to get speed out of a car. You can get better at it, but there are some who just have an innate ability to be really fast. Back in the day, it was guys like Shane Hmiel. And Tyler Reddick nowadays, Kyle Larson, they have so much speed, and it’s the race craft, I really think, (that) gets you the finishes you deserve on any given weekend.

11. What life lessons from a young age stick with you and affect your daily decisions as an adult?

Probably just the work ethic my dad instilled in myself. He was just one of those people who, when I wanted to start racing, said, “This is your hobby, not mine. I’m not going out there and working on your race car for you. If you want to do it, you go out there, you learn it — and then when you wreck it, you have to figure out how to get it back to the racetrack.”

It wasn’t that he wasn’t helping — he was right there on the team helping me — but he wasn’t going to let me just sit in a chair and watch a bunch of people work on my car. That work ethic instills the most into who I am today.

The question was about a kid, but as a young adult, the other one was (former crew chief) Mike Ford’s “better find happiness in something other than winning” in my rookie year. I was pouting because I wasn’t winning and he’s like, “Dude, you’re going up against the best Cup drivers — Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon — like who do you think you are? These guys are good. To think you’re going to come in here and just start winning races like you were in Late Models — you better find happiness in something other than winning, because you’re going to lose way more than you’re going to win in this sport.

“The best drivers our sport has ever seen win less than 10 percent of the time, so get used to it.”

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. The last one was with Michael McDowell, and he said: “Ask him if he takes any supplements or has any sort of diet or nutrition that has allowed his heart rate to stay so low in the car. Because I have asked medical experts — I’ve asked really, really smart people — and they say it’s almost impossible what he’s achieving in the race car. Even if he was the greatest athlete in the world and was a marathon runner and all these things, it’s almost impossible what he’s doing. So I just want to know if that is a God-given gift or if he has the secret sauce and he doesn’t want to share it. And he can answer it, ‘Hey, I’m not telling you.’ That’s OK. I just need to know.”

Boy, talk about put me on the spot there, Michael McDowell. The answer is it’s both. I won’t tell you the secret sauce, but there certainly are things as far as beverages we put in the car that I found a good mixture for — all those tailored to me. Yes, diet plays a role. And then as a person, I play a role in keeping my heart rate low.

I do believe keeping your heart rate low during pressure situations allows you to make the best decisions. I notice it when I’m golfing, if it’s on Hole 18 and I’ve got to hit it on the green, I’m 150 (yards) out, my heart rate starts going crazy. And you typically don’t hit the great shot, right? We see it all the time in sports.

I’ve gotten my cockpit fit perfectly to me where I’m in a very comfortable position. (The low heart rate) is a pie that has a lot of different recipes in it, that equal the comfort level that allows me to be so calm in the car. And it’s taken a long time for me to get it that way.

Do you have a question I can ask the next person?

Early in your career, if you had the opportunity to go to Cup three years before you did, but you were going to be with a marginal team at best and you were going to struggle and risk your ability to ever get a good ride at a top-tier team, would you take that risk and gain the three years experience and bet on yourself to make it to the next level? Or would you be patient, stay in the lower series for those three years and then go right to a top team?



Top 5, Indy road course: Michael McDowell breaks through, Kyle Larson previews 2024

(Top photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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