Words: Tony Markovich
Photography: Jared Allen
Denny Hamlin is a three-time Daytona 500 champion and co-owner of the 23XI Racing team, but if he ever needs another line of work, he might have a shot as a fortune teller. As a young kid, he precisely foretold several aspects of his successful driving career on more than one occasion, down to specific dates.
Denny’s first bold prediction appeared in cursive while he was in the second grade. Tasked with a prompt about future goals and dreams, he wrote on the lined paper, “My wish is to win the Daytona 500. If I won the Daytona 500, I would like it to come true on February 17, 1998.” The year was a bit too hopeful, but 40-year-old Hamlin has been the first to cross the 500 finish line on three separate occasions, including February 17, 2019, and February 17, 2020.
A few years later, at a 1992 autograph session, an 11-year-old Denny told owner Joe Gibbs that he’d race for him one day. That came true, too. Today, Denny has logged 44 NASCAR Cup Series wins and 12 NASCAR playoff appearances for Joe Gibbs Racing, the only team he’s ever raced for since entering the series in 2005. His goal now? Sixty wins and a championship.
What he couldn’t have seen in a palm reading or a crystal ball, however, was that his racing aspirations would lead to a friendship, and now a business partnership, with Michael Jordan.
During Denny’s 10-plus years with Jordan Brand as a sponsor, he learned about MJ’s affinity for racing firsthand. The two have bonded over their competitive spirits, and when the opportunity presented itself in 2020, Denny and MJ agreed to put their energy and knowledge into an all-new NASCAR team, 23XI Racing. For 2021, Denny continues to race for Joe Gibbs and has already logged several top-five finishes, all while operating as part-owner of his new business and a mentor for his new driver, Bubba Wallace.
We recently caught up with Denny to discuss his upbringing, his prophetic abilities and how he uses his platform to change the sport for the better.
You started racing around age seven, and even some of your school book reports were about racing. How did your passion for driving start so early?
I started by going to a race when I was five years old. As soon as I went to a race and felt the vibration of the cars buzzing around, the smell of the tires and the fuel, I was instantly hooked. There’s just something about the roar of the engines when they went by for the first time; I instantly latched on to it.
How did growing up in Virginia influence your passion for racing?
Racing is pretty big in the southeast, and I remember my parents had season tickets at Richmond. My mom would put the tickets on the refrigerator, and I’d keep looking at the date, excited for the NASCAR races to come into town. I also went to the local short track called Southside Speedway, about 15-20 minutes from where I lived. That was where I fulfilled my passion for racing week in, week out, even when the big guys weren’t in town.
As a kid, you wrote a paper stating that you wanted to win the Daytona 500 on a specific date, February 17th. You then won the Daytona 500 twice on February 17th. How did that happen?
I was in second grade, which is the same grade my oldest daughter is in now. We were doing a school project, and they told us to write down something that we were passionate about and what we wanted to do when we grew up. For me, I wanted to win the Daytona 500, because the Daytona 500 is the biggest race that we have in NASCAR.
That race traditionally happens in February. The date varies, but it might’ve been right around that time. So, I just wrote down, “I want to win the Daytona 500 on February 17th, 1998.” I didn’t win it in 1998, I was about 15 years off on my prediction there. But that was because I thought I would be racing a car as soon as I got my license, which wasn’t the case.
Now I’ve won it twice on that date, which is crazy.
You’re one of only six people who have won three Daytona 500s. How does it feel to have that accomplishment under your belt, especially going back-to-back?
I never would have dreamed of winning one, even though my childhood self felt differently. That race is so difficult to win because you need so many different things to go in your favor. You need skill, a fast car and a team effort when you’re on pit road. But you also need to have good luck, too. You have to miss the big wrecks when they do happen, and you have to know where to be in order to avoid those big wrecks. I’ve been very fortunate to come out unscathed for the last seven, eight years. It’s been a great run. I’ve just trusted my instincts on those types of races.
Winning three of the last five, up until this year — it can’t get much better. What I think about is all the ones that I should have won, so that drives me crazy more than the ones that I’ve actually won.
It’s amazing looking at the trophies. I have them sitting in a little showroom right off my living room. I see those trophies each and every day, and they remind me of the great accomplishments we’ve had.
You have a goal of winning 60 races. What does that number represent to you, and how did you set that goal for yourself?
It’s a big number, and I’m 16 wins away right now. Hopefully, I can do that in the next three to four years. If I can get to 60, it would be an amazing accomplishment, but I need to get to 50 first. I’d be putting myself in the upper tier of all drivers who have ever done it.
Where do you consider yourself among the greats?
Like any other sport, it’s hard to place, because we’re in a different age now. I believe that athletes today are bigger and stronger than they’ve ever been, and in NASCAR, they’re faster and more knowledgeable than they’ve ever been because they’ve started earlier in their career.
I hold the accomplishments we’ve gotten pretty high. 20-30 years ago, I would say there were probably five or six cars that could win a race. Now, there are 15-20 cars that can win in any given week. So, if you can win a handful, five or six a year, that’s really putting yourself in the upper echelon.
Two of your best seasons have come after down years. How did that play into your motivation?
I’m so competitive, and I hate sucking at anything. I’ve never felt like I was a gifted athlete, whether in golf or basketball, but I work really hard to be pretty good at everything I do. I’ve got the work ethic.
I’ve been with a crew chief over the last couple of years, who has really helped me identify where my weaknesses are as a driver. There’s so much more to it than just making circles. You’re trying to identify restarts. How good are you for the first five laps of a run? How good are you at maneuvering around other cars? All of that can be quantified in statistics, so I find where I’m in the bottom tier, and I go work on it to get better. That’s typically how I bounce back the next year.
How do you think the mentality of NASCAR athletes differs from other sports?
It’s really different. I would consider us more like PGA players, in the sense that we’re all traveling together. It’s not like other sports, where you have head-to-head competition. We all come together each and every week and travel together. We always call it the traveling circus. Even though we’re fierce competitors, we’re also close in a lot of ways. When we’re racing each other, we don’t cut each other any slack, but we keep that friendship off the racetrack. It’s a balance, and everyone does it a little bit differently.
Off the track, you’re also friends with Michael Jordan. What’s it like having so much in common with him?
Trust me, it caught me off guard when I met him and had my first conversations with him about racing. I didn’t realize that he was such a big NASCAR fan and racing fan. We were having those initial conversations about 12 years ago, and he was asking me a lot of questions about strategy or specific races that I had weeks prior.
He used to go to NASCAR races with his dad. He sets up his tee times around NASCAR races on Sunday. I found that out through his friends when we played golf once. They’re like, “Yeah, we have to tee off by this time, to make sure we’re tuned in to watch the race on Sunday.” It’s great that he’s got a real passion for it. Our friendship morphed into a Jordan Brand partnership. Now, it’s also a business relationship with the 23XI Racing team.
How has it felt to be a part of the Jordan Brand family?
In the 10 or 11 years that I’ve been with the Jordan Brand, it’s just been phenomenal. To be able to represent the Brand out on the racetrack is awesome. The Jumpman logo is one of the most prominent things you see during every interview, right there on my shoulders. It’s great to represent the greatness the Brand brings.
The Jumpman logo isn’t something you’d expect to see at a NASCAR racetrack, but it’s there more and more. I see more crew guys wearing Jordans, so we’re getting people involved.
What would you say is your favorite Air Jordan and why?
It’s really close, but I would say the Air Jordan I. Lately, I wear the Unions and Mochas. I love the AJ11s, too, though I’m biased to the number 11, because I’m Number 11. I have a special place in my heart for the XIs.
One of the biggest upcoming releases is the Air Jordan V Toro Bravo. What do you like about that model, as well as the forthcoming Air Jordan 13 Red Flints?
I like them a lot. As you’ve seen with 23XI, red is a very prominent color within our race team. To see those two pairs, especially the red suede on the Vs and the 23 on the side, it just screams 23XI Racing. I’ll definitely be sporting both of those at the racetrack often.
Racing shoes require different features than sneakers. What do you look for in a good driving shoe?
You need to have flexibility. Ultimately, if we could race without shoes, we would, but it’s just so hot — you wouldn’t have any skin left. It’s 130, 140 degrees inside that race car, so you need to have a shoe that shields you from the heat. The shoe we have coming in the next few months is more based on the AJ1 design. I’m really excited about the new concept and can’t wait to see it out on the racetrack.
Shifting to the 23XI Racing team, how did that idea sprout and come together?
It happened very quickly, but it started out as a normal conversation. When I’m playing golf with MJ, a lot of the conversation is about my race team, the #11 FedEx team. He’ll be like “Hey, you should have done this, you should have been more aggressive.” We were just talking shop. Bubba Wallace was coming to the end of his contract last year. At Toyota, we were losing one of the cars that we were associated with at Joe Gibbs Racing. So I said, “What if we put Bubba in a good car?” We appreciate him, and I appreciate what he stands for. He went through a lot last year, and he handled himself really well. I wanted to see him get a shot in equipment that’s equal to mine — so everyone could really analyze his talent.
So, I went to MJ and said, “Listen, he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year. What do you think? Do you think we could put something together?” He said, “Listen, are you going to be a car owner or not?” And I replied, “Well, I’d like to be.” He then said, “Well, if you ever want to be, and you want a partner, let me know.” I immediately left the fairway, because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
So, I flew to Florida, met with him, told him my plan, laid it all out and said, “Here’s what we got. We need to make a decision really quickly because we’re three-quarters of the way, we’re almost at the end of the season. If we’re going to be at the Daytona 500, we have to make a decision now.” He had his team look through it, and he decided that this was an area he wanted to venture into.
Even one year ago, I never would have dreamed of this happening. I always knew that I wanted to run a business, but I didn’t know what that business was going to be. I didn’t know if it was going to be car dealerships or maybe another trailer shop. This deal just popped up, and within a month, we got it done.
Off the track, you make donations and hold events like the Short Track Showdown that benefit charities like the Cystic Fibrosis Research Lab. Why is that important to you, and why do you feel that responsibility to take action?
It’s important, because the short tracks like the Southside Speedway are part of racing’s roots. A lot of the NASCAR drivers and crew members come from those local short track levels. Racing is so different because you need to have money to do it. It costs money to be out there. If you crash your car, someone has to pay for that. You have to buy tires and fuel every week and replace fenders or blown engines. It costs money, which makes it very, very difficult to move up. I wanted to give back to the short track guys who I learned so much from. We host special events, where they get to race against me and some of my cup competitors.
Then, I take the money from those races and use it with the Denny Hamlin Foundation, which benefits cystic fibrosis. My cousin has cystic fibrosis, and I never really understood what it was all about when I was younger. As I learned more and saw how close they’ve gotten to finding a cure, I’ve become more passionate about giving toward that research.
What’s the next stage of developing the 23XI Racing team?
What we’ve seen throughout the first seven races is that our team continues to get better and better each and every week. The last two weeks in a row, we’ve run well inside the top 10. We have to work on finishing there, but ultimately, we’re a strong team right now, and we’re showing promise toward the future.
We have a lot that we want to accomplish. I want to get our first top 10, then top 5. We’re running inside the top 10 pretty consistently, and we want to be contending for race wins by the end of the year. In the summer, I want us to be running better than we were in the spring, and in the fall, I want to be running better than we were in the summer. We just want to continually get better.
From this year and beyond, the goal will be expanding to two cars, then three cars, to make this a multi-car operation. The more race cars we field, the more opportunities we have to win. Making sure we have the smartest people and the best drivers is also really important for us and our on-track successes.
The Air Jordan V “Toro Bravo” is available starting April 10 on SNKRS and from select retailers. The Air Jordan 13 “Red Flint” is available starting May 8 from select retailers. The Jordan Brand Air and 23 Engineered apparel collections release throughout the Spring and Summer 2021 seasons on Jordan.com and from select retailers.