Teleconference: Hamlin And Bowyer

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NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Rookie of the Year candidates Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer were this week's guests on the NASCAR teleconference heading into this weekend's races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Q: Clint, you are off and running at a pretty quick pace this year. Do you have any magic to it?

CLINT BOWYER: Just preparation and good people surrounding me. My crew grief Gil Martin has done a good job getting cars repaired over the winter. I think we started out at Daytona right out of the box really good. Momentum and confidence is high with the 07 team.

On the Busch side of things, new team and new crew on there, so I'm just kind of getting things going there as far as getting to know everybody and getting things jelled. As far as Jack Daniels Chevrolet, really proud of the effort these guys have put into it, and I think our results are showing it.

Q: We are also joined by Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is second behind Clint in the standings and he has already won the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona back in February, and he won NASCAR Busch Series at Mexico City a couple weeks ago. He is 16th in the series standings. I believe he was top 10 this weekend, I may be getting my numbers wrong there, at Las Vegas. You've got a nice little rivalry that's developing with Clint. Are you guys having fun with that?

DENNY HAMLIN: It's fun. It's fun to be part of such a strong rookie class. I think there's been a different rookie at the first three races so far, so you're not really seeing any one person dominate so far.

I'd say there's probably about four of us that are really in contention, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see how it works out through the year.

Q: How you doing, guys? For both of you, I just want to know how valuable is your crew chief from a rookie standpoint in the Cup Series? What kind of advice do they offer? What kind of value do they have during a race?

DENNY HAMLIN: I'm especially in need of a very experienced crew chief, and Mike Ford, he's been around the sport for a lot of years. He's worked for guys like Dale Jarrett, so he's definitely got a lot of experience as far as that's concerned, as far as trying to counterbalance my inexperience. I definitely like working with him.

We got a jump start last year running the last seven races and helped get our chemistry together really before this year started. Definitely it's working out really good right now, so hopefully we'll keep it going.

CLINT BOWYER: And on my side, it's been a huge help getting acquainted with Gil Martin, an experienced veteran crew chief, early. We had a year under our belt in the Busch Series working together and learning each other, and I think it's paid off a lot when we went over here to the Cup side. Again, I think we're all benefiting. These owners were smart in putting all of us rookie drivers with a veteran crew chief. It sure has helped a lot.

Q: This question is for Clint. Testing policies limit what Cup tracks you can test at. Some people say that Martinsville is among the more difficult tracks, and typically all the rookies have tested there before the first race. I was just curious what kind of experience have you had since the Busch Series hasn't run there in several years and what can you do to prepare for Martinsville in the next couple weeks?

CLINT BOWYER: I've never even seen Martinsville, but my teammate, Kevin Harvick, built a mini Martinsville for go kart so maybe I need to practice on the go kart track. I mean, it's going to be tough. You're kind of backed up against the wall at a few of these race tracks, Sonoma, Pocono and Martinsville. It's going to be hard for most of us rookies that haven't ever even seen the racetrack to come in there and to run up to expectation, especially as good as we've been running.

You know, you're just going to have to make the best of it, bank on, like we've been talking about, experience in the crew chief and the crew on carrying you a little bit through those races.

Q: Will you test a flat track non Cup track at some point to get used to it, or will you have to go in just kind of raw?

CLINT BOWYER: For the most part it's going to be pretty much kind of going in raw or whatever. You can go to some flat tracks and get some runs, but most important is my teammates have both been there and Kevin has run there in the past and has a good baseline and it'll be a good start for us to go there. That's going to be a big help, and again, just going into this in the dark a little bit, you've got to bank off the guys that have the experience. Fortunately I've got a good crew chief and good teammates, as well.

Q: When is the last time you've been on a track that you've never been to before that you came of came into in the dark? How did you do that weekend?

CLINT BOWYER: Well, there was a few last year in the Busch Series that I had never been to when we went, Mexico both road courses, I had never even been on a road course, so that was completely strange to me. And we ran 7th, I think, the first year there.

I mean, we can do it. Like I said, we've got to use our tools, use our resources and go there and give it a good effort and get all we can out of the weekend. You can't go there expecting to win that race against these type of guys. Obviously you're going there to win the race, but you have to go there within expectation and have a good show and just get all you can out of that weekend.

Q: This is for Clint. Clint, I know you weren't in the Cup level last year at RCR, but it just seems like RCR has found something this year. All three drivers are running well, just performance is up in general. What's happened at RCR?

CLINT BOWYER: Tons of things; complete resurrection, really. Richard has made some personnel changes that were key, and we've picked up in every area. It wasn't just like we found 100 horsepower in the engine shop and that's why we're running good. Our aero program has picked up, engineering has picked up, engines have picked up. We have better people in the right area, and another big thing is we have three drivers that are willing to work with each other, share things on and off the track, and three crew chiefs that are good crew chiefs that are willing to share their side of things on and off the racetrack. I think those two things in general are something that RCR struggled with in the past, everybody getting along and working together.

Q: Can you talk about the mood around the shop these days? Can you sense among your teammates and team members that things are on the upswing at RCR?

CLINT BOWYER: Absolutely. Just walking through the shop, the 07 team in general, they got beat up pretty bad last year. It wasn't like they worked any less last year, they just didn't get the results. There's definitely a pep in their step and they're eager to go each and every week to the racetrack. RCR as a whole, you walk through the shop and everybody is upbeat and ready to go. It's been a huge confidence booster and momentum builder for everybody.

Q: Denny, coming into a situation with FedEx, you and I talked about this a couple times during the off season, just a high profile ride, and as we've seen this season get underway, they've turned you into a high profile driver. Being a rookie, being involved in a rookie race, has that been difficult to get used to?

DENNY HAMLIN: No, because the biggest thing is we got a system at the end of last year. Putting me into the last seven races kind of gave me an idea of what I needed to be prepared for this year. They told me that they were going to do, of course, the commercials and stuff like that, and that gives me face, and those guys are behind me 110 percent. FedEx and Joe Gibbs Racing both are definitely in it for the long haul with me. They know there's going to be some bumps in the road along the way, but we've just got to work through them.

We know everything is going to work out for the good. We just need to get over this first year, second year, and we'll be able to contend for championships down the road.

Q: Does it make you feel like a star yet?

DENNY HAMLIN: It's definitely changed things quite a bit, but you just try and keep a level head.

Q: Clint, getting off to the start that you have, talk about that and keeping your mind on the full picture and not just trying to dwell or is it difficult not to dwell on the Rookie of the Year award?

CLINT BOWYER: Just like you said, the Rookie of the Year honor is going to be something that's really big, especially with the talent level and the resources and equipment level that we have this year for the Rookie of the Year.

But aside from that, you've still got all the rest of the track out there that you have to beat, not these seven rookies. That's what we're focusing on. Obviously you see Denny running, you see J.J. out there, Martin Truex, and you see all these rookie guys out there, but those aren't the guys I'm seeing; I'm seeing the Jimmy Johnsons, Tony Stewarts, Jeff Burton, all these other guys in front of me that I've got to beat to win a race. Those are the guys that I'm just trying to learn off of them and learn what they're doing on the racetrack, how they're starting a race run and things like that. I'm just trying to prepare myself to beat these guys.

True, you've got to win that Rookie of the Year honor and it's going to be important and there's going to be a lot of attention put on that rookie class, but still, to win a race, you've got to beat these other guys.

Q: Denny, I was wondering with the seven races you ran last year and the success at the Shootout, are you starting to feel more like a regular driver more than a rookie or still that you're the rookie in the field?

DENNY HAMLIN: I definitely feel a little bit more like a regular than just a rookie. We're competitive every week. We're still trying to get over that last lap deal that we got caught up with at Daytona that cost us a bunch. So we're trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.

Other than that, we've been a top 10 contending car every single week that I've been in the Cup Series. We're definitely that makes it a little bit easier on your self esteem and confidence. You're definitely still the rookie and you've definitely got to act that way.

Q: And also to follow up on that, can you talk about J.J.? He also ran a couple races last year. Are you two helping each other as you go along? Have you been helping him get into it a little bit more?

DENNY HAMLIN: We definitely talk a lot. We get together pretty much every race. We definitely talk about our cars quite a bit. He's probably going to be the dark horse in this rookie battle that's going to be really tough. He's definitely big on these big tracks he's really strong at, and he's definitely going to be another guy we've got to watch out for.

Q: Both of you have come a long way fast. Can you comment on the journey and what impresses you most about driving at the Cup level?

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, I'll jump in there. I think it was extremely fast. I went from running just Late Models to a Cup race, my very first Cup race, in one year. So it was definitely a huge jump in a short amount of time that I wasn't expecting. I really didn't want to go that fast, but the opportunity came up, and had I not taken it, who knows how long it would have been before I would have got another.

I made the best of the opportunity I got and jumped in there and realized, hey, this is the kind of racing I like this better than Busch racing. It definitely was a jump that was a good decision, I believe, and hopefully it will pay off in the end.

CLINT BOWYER: On my side, I came from a dirt background and a year of asphalt experience and jumped into a Busch ride. But that's one thing these owners are doing is putting young drivers like both of us to the test right away and seeing how you stand up. Fortunately we both made the best of our opportunities. Again, I think I'm actually a stronger racer and probably a person, creating a race a championship winner and a race winner for the future for these owners.

If you can stand up to that test, that's probably about the most pressure you can possibly put on a driver is take them into an element that they don't even have a clue about and putting them in a car that's capable of winning and seeing if they can get the job done. They're definitely good at putting pressure on us, but those of us who are able to are fortunate enough to make the best of it. They've also stood up to their end of the deal and got us in good equipment and good rides.

Q: Just to follow up on the crew chief question, I was wondering if both of you could give a specific example of a decision or a move your crew chief made during a race that made a difference in the result of the race. Can you think of any recent races where that's happened?

CLINT BOWYER: For me it's about every stop. You know, I'm so new to an asphalt car and things like that, and knowing what to need, as far as the way Gil and I work, I tell him what the car is doing, where it's at, and he fixes it. I don't know a lot about the chassis setup, and he prefers to keep it that way (laughing).

DENNY HAMLIN: Well, for me I think the biggest experience was probably at Phoenix International Raceway last year. We end loaded and I was kind of in panic mode. Mike was real patient and just said let's take this slow and do what we've got to do to get this car right. He made it into a pole winning car and a great racecar during the race.

His experience level definitely kept my head level at the time, and I'm sure it won't be the last time.

Q: Can you both talk about dealing with the veterans and the champions? A lot of discussion yesterday about whether you should kind of respect a champion, maybe not race him in the same way you'd race someone else. I know that Clint, you've got a leading driver on your side of things, and also you've got Tony Stewart, Denny. So could you guys talk about racing against those guys?

DENNY HAMLIN: You know, you want to give 110 percent at all times, but at the same time, if you make those veterans' jobs harder, they're going to make your job harder. You know, you don't fall over and die for some of those guys, but you've definitely got to show them respect. They're the ones who opened the door for me and Clint, to get in the sport. I know I race them a little bit differently than I race other guys. It's just a certain level of respect factor there that you don't cross.

CLINT BOWYER: Yeah, I think it goes back a little bit to the Busch Series, too. We were fortunate enough to get to race against those guys, race against the Tony Stewarts, Jimmy Johnsons, Mark Martins, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, all these guys that are winning races, veterans of the sport. We were able to race against those guys, learn from them, learn how they race, and when we came to the Cup Series plus we earned their respect while we were doing it. So when we came to the Cup Series, we knew what we were up against.

They knew they had a little bit of confidence in us racing around them, so things weren't so different when we got to the Cup Series. They'd been there and had some confidence in us, and we respect them. I mean, that's the biggest thing. They didn't get to where they were and be veterans in the sport for nothing, and you've got to be able to respect that. I think they respect us on the same token. I think a lot of it is credited back to the Busch Series.

Q: Would you say that that's sort of an unwritten rule for young guys and you're sort of indicating that maybe you could benefit more by not kind of getting them upset at you?

DENNY HAMLIN: Definitely. We saw the little whatever you want to call it, between Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. Obviously there's some respect issues there between those guys. Maybe one thinks he deserves more than the other. Those are the types of things that we're talking about that you don't want to get into and you don't need to get into your rookie season.

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