Denny Hamlin will never forget the feeling of wonder as he strapped into his race car before making his first NASCAR Cup start.
It was October 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway, and Hamlin was as nervous as a teenager before his first test drive.
“It was very intimidating,” he said. “I remember coming out of pit road the very first time thinking, ‘What am I doing racing around Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin?
“I felt like I was in a video game, I didn’t think it was real.”
Hamlin qualified seventh but a puncture relegated him to 32nd in that inaugural start for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he has since been one of the most accomplished drivers in the sport and has been particularly successful at Kansas Speedway.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is one of five drivers to win three Cup races at Kansas, site of Sunday’s Advent Health 400. And he passed that success on to 23XI Racing, the team Hamlin co-founded in 2021 with basketball legend Michael Jordan.
A year ago, 23XI Racing swept both races at Kansas Speedway with wins from Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace.
Busch ended a personal 32-race winless streak at Kansas by winning the spring race in the No. 45 Toyota, which was in its first year of racing. After Busch was sidelined by what could be a career-ending concussion, Wallace went from No. 23 to No. 45 and won the fall playoff race at Kansas, beating Hamlin at the 1.0 second checkered flag.
“Watching this team grow in its first year was amazing, and I still don’t think we appreciate it enough in the industry how hard it is to do,” Hamlin said. “I’m glad we were able to do this for Kurt, whether it’s his last win in a Cup car as a full time driver, it’s special, especially the first race with the Jordan brand on his car, it’s was proud instant assured. »
Wallace’s win was his second career win, coming a year after winning the rain-shortened 2021 event in Talladega for 23XI.
“That car was in the playoffs,” Hamlin said of Wallace’s win in #45, “so it was a huge deal for everybody. And for me to be there, in second place, to watch it was special. It’s a different feeling when you watch a team that you helped build, accomplish what they did.
The Michael Jordan Effect
Michael Jordan isn’t just a figurehead co-owner of 23XI, which takes its name from Jordan’s number 23 with the Chicago Bulls and Hamlin’s car number 11. Hamlin leans on Jordan for advice and business acumen.
“He’s a racing fan first and foremost,” Hamlin said. “His parents took him to NASCAR races when he was a kid, and that’s how it started. He’s now our business partner. It gives me the autonomy to run the team the way I want to. hear and make decisions on the competition side that I need, and he and his team work hard on the business side.
“What makes this combination work so well is that we have two different guys who have different specialties, and we trust each other to guide us in the right direction.”
Jordan occasionally attends races, including Talladega last month, but Hamlin isn’t sure when he’ll be at the track next. “He’s got a new boat so he’s been traveling all over the world right now,” Hamlin said.
The addition of Tyler Reddick
During the offseason, when it became apparent that Busch could not return to racing full time, Hamlin signed Tyler Reddick, whose contract was expiring with Richard Childress Racing, to drive the No. 45 this year.
The move has already paid off as Reddick, 27, won the Cup race in Austin in March.
“I knew this kid was going to be a generational talent and I picked him up as soon as I could,” Hamlin said. “I’m really happy with the results he gave our race team. We are going to win a lot of races with him in his career and hopefully championships as well.
Although Busch’s racing future is uncertain, he plays an important role for 23XI Racing as a veteran presence for both racing teams while Hamlin dedicates time to his driver role for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I have Kurt in these guys’ ears, talking like a veteran and keeping them up to date on things they can do better, week in and week out,” Hamlin said. “He is a huge asset to our team. He shows up for training. He shows up at our debriefings.
“If he can just bring a thought or an idea to our drivers in a weekend of something he sees from the outside, then he’s worth his weight in gold to us.”
Always chasing a championship
Hamlin, meanwhile, still has a strong grip on the wheel.
He arrives at Kansas seventh in the standings after a fifth-place finish at Dover in last Monday’s rain-delayed race, but is still seeking his first win of the season and a 33-race winless streak, dating back to Coca Cola 2022. 600 .
“I have a lot of things I want to accomplish,” Hamlin, 42, said. “I want to get 60 wins, if possible. If I want to do that, I’m going to have to get those wins, as soon as possible.
“I’m enjoying the process. I’m still very competitive, we have room for improvement, that’s for sure. We have to work on closing the races, finishing the races as well as we are able to race. If we continue to have the speed we had, the results will follow.
Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 champion, has 48 career wins, which ranks him 17th all-time, and he was recently named one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers as part of the 75th sports anniversary.
“I thought I had a place in it, but you never know until you know,” Hamlin said. “It’s a great achievement, and I hope we can get another one.”
That accomplishment would capture the NASCAR Cup championship that eluded him for 17 seasons.
“It’s important personally, but I don’t know how important it is for the outside audience,” said Hamlin, who finished second in 2010 and third in 2014 and 2021. “I’m very happy with my career If I had never had another top 5, I would be okay with how my career has gone.
“Honestly, it’s not a make or break for me. But I’m going to race like it matters and that’s what drives me on the race track every week, these goals.
Kansas Speedway Schedule
9:25 a.m. ARCA series practice.
10:10 a.m. ARCA Series qualifying.
11:05 a.m. NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Series practice.
11.35 a.m. Truck series qualifications.
1 p.m. ARCA Menards Series Dawn 150 race.
4:05 p.m. NASCAR Cup Series practice.
4:50 p.m. Qualifying for the NASCAR Cup.
7 p.m. NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Heart of America 200 race.
1:30 p.m. Presentation of the NASCAR Cup drivers,
2 p.m. NASCAR Cup AdventHealth 400 race.