It’s not easy being the big dog in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage.
Just ask points leader Denny Hamlin, who on the verge of his first series championship arrived at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday decidedly under the weather. Seems young Mr. Hamlin had had a bit too much champagne recently. Though not in the way you might be thinking.
“I ended up getting sick in victory lane last week getting doused with champagne, one of the negative parts about it,” Hamlin said of the post-race festivities at Texas Motor Speedway, where he won last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 and took over the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead. “Ended up being a freezing cold victory lane.”
Nor did Hamlin start the weekend with all the speed he’d like in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which was 28th in the opening round of practice for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at PIR. Qualifying was only nominally better, with Hamlin starting 17th.
In his NASCAR-mandated group interview Friday afternoon, Hamlin was decidedly low-key. Perhaps it was his head cold or his slow practice speed, or maybe he was just trying to keep an even keel.
Since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was launched in 2004, no one in Hamlin’s position as points leader has ever lost the lead after eight of 10 Chase races. Asked about it, Hamlin was noncommittal.
“I really try not to think into stats too much because I know stats are very misleading at times,” he said. “You look at average finishes at race tracks, it’s very, very misleading. Especially in my career because I’ve only raced a few years — one bad finish drags everything down. As well as the rest of these guys that have only been around 10 years.”
And so, as his title rival Johnson does, Hamlin said he’s trying to keep things simple.
“It’s really hard to think about,” he said. “All I can really think about is how people are running at that specific time. I think that overcomes any stats that may have happened in the past. Right now I don’t think of it as us having a lead, it’s more of us having a level playing field going to a track that those two guys probably had a better record and lately on these types of race tracks have run better.”
To that end, Hamlin said he’s trying not to get too uptight about this weekend, racing at a track where Johnson and Harvick are more comfortable than he is.
“I’m really not — I only get nervous at times — there’s only certain moments in which I think about it too much,” said Hamlin. “When I do think about it too much is when I get to thinking about everything that could possibly happen. I’m more excited for the possibilities than I am nervous that we’ll end up faltering and not winning it, to be honest with you. I think we have a great opportunity here to do some great things, we just hope the things that we can’t control go well for us and that’s all we can really hope for.”
As for the incendiary comments his crew chief Mike Ford made after Texas about Johnson and his team essentially choking, Hamlin downplayed those, too.
“I think he’s honest. He’s the least-cocky guy I know,” Hamlin said of Ford. “Anybody who’s been in this sport longer than last week will tell you that he’s definitely not that. I think he’s more boastful of his own team then he is skeptics of someone else’s. I think it kind of came off wrong. I don’t think it matters. I think anyone who’s leading the points is going to have a target on their back, like it or not. ... The ‘He said, she said,” is totally irrelevant.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.