Forgive Denny Hamlin if he appears somewhat nervous this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
His past two visits to the track in Fontana, Calif., have left him sitting out Sprint Cup Series races.
Two years ago, an accident on the last lap of the Cup race forced Hamlin to miss four races because of a fractured vertebra in his back.
Last year, he missed the Fontana race when he woke up on race day with what was thought then to be a bad eye infection. He turned out to have a small piece of metal in his eye.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Needless to say Hamlin is hoping for an uneventful but productive California weekend.
Hamlin recently spoke about his return to the track and what needs to happen this season for his Joe Gibbs Racing team to compete with other dominant teams.
Q What is your motivation for running well at Auto Club Speedway?
A “I was really excited, especially that we had ran happy hour and we thought we were a car that could compete for a win (last year). I’m just as motivated. The last race laps I ran around there was when I got crashed on the last lap racing for a win. Ultimately, my motivation is to go there and perform at a really high level. It’s been circled for like a year or two now to run well there. I just didn’t get a chance last year and hopefully I will this year.”
Q How does the team focus on beating the other teams that seem dominant right now?
A “We try to identify the areas that we’re getting beat, and right now it’s a little bit of everything in my opinion. Some tracks just work well for drivers, and they have that special chemistry and their driving style fits a particular race track. That for us is our biggest focus – not trying to beat necessarily one car, but how can we come here and be more competitive than what we were last time.”
Q. Are you satisfied with Auto Club Speedway from a safety perspective?
A. “I haven’t seen the race track. I think more and more now we’re starting to put more eyes on where SAFER barriers are. I haven’t asked to see it, but I’m assuming from talks that I’ve had with Jeff (Gordon), I believe the meeting he had with NASCAR went well and they’re doing everything they can to make sure the changes are happening as fast as they can. I’m assuming that the job is going to get done quickly and right. When we get there we will have somewhere safe to race on.”
Q. Is your team struggling with the new rules package?
A. “It’s really tough to say, I wouldn’t think this rules package would suit me and my style particularly. I’d rather have 1,000 horsepower than 700. The less downforce I would say probably does suit me a little bit better, but I think we’ve just kind of optimized where we’re at.
“We’re top five, but we’re still just a little behind on speed from where we need to from (Kevin Harvick) and then the Hendrick cars, but it’s all about for us trying to find that little bit of extra speed. We’re way closer than what we were with our No. 11 team at this time last year. Pretty optimistic about what’s to come in the months and hopefully if we can make it in the Chase then we can make another run at it.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter