CHARLOTTE – Denny Hamlin looked out across the Time Warner Cable Arena an hour before Wednesday’s Hawks-Bobcats game as the players and the Lady Cats cheerleaders went through their pregame routines, Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to The Jungle blaring through the speakers.
The NASCAR star settled in front of a camera, the logo for the Daytona 500 filling the jumbotron behind him as he filmed a series of promos and a Hawks LIVE interview with Andre Aldridge.
He was there to discuss his driving in the Great American Race, which airs Feb. 24 on FOX, along with a connection to the Bobcats, which is evident in both his personal and professional life.
“[I’ve] definitely got a lot of ties [to the Bobcats],” he said.
Hamlin attended his first game in 2007 at the invitation of someone with courtside seats and was immediately hooked.
“I had watched basketball only a little bit on TV, never been to a game in person,” he said. “But ever since then I was like ‘Wow, this is a whole different experience when (you) get down here how physical the game is’ and fueled my passion for basketball I haven’t had since really I was a teenager.”
He became a season-ticket holder the following year and would go on to meet a pair of Jordans: his girlfriend, former Lady Cat Jordan Fish and Hall of Famer and Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.
Hamlin and Fish welcomed their first child — daughter Taylor James Hamlin – on Jan. 20 and Michael Jordan, who divulged to Hamlin that he watches every Sprint Cup race, has his iconic Jumpman logo on Hamlin’s firesuit.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, what do you think about a Jordan Brand firesuit,’” Hamlin said. “He loved the idea and he called up his people to get it done and obviously that’s where it all started.”
Before taking his seat for the game Hamlin made an appearance on the Bobcats LIVE set opposite Stephanie Ready, the concourse behind them bustling with fans as tip-off neared.
Hamlin was given a gift in a blue bag with orange tissue paper inside – Bobcats colors – and as he walked from the set I asked him what was inside.
“A Bobcats onesie,” he said, smiling as he produced the navy blue shirt with the team logo.
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Already, Hamlin is seeing the possibilities the newest evolution of the Sprint Cup car presents.
Increased downforce. More grip. After two tests in the Gen-6 car — which replaces the Car of Tomorrow – at Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Hamlin expects to see lap times drop dramatically.
“We’re going to be running record speeds at every track we run at this year,” he said. “It’s exciting from that standpoint, but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when you get 43 cars out there. How are they going to react to each other?”
It’s a car that many expect to bring an end to the tandem racing that, to the chagrin of many fans and drivers, defined the restrictor-plate races of late, and bring a return to the pack racing of old.
When Hamlin climbs into his No. 11 Toyota at Daytona, he’ll also be doing it with a new teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing in Matt Kenseth. The 2003 series champion and winner of 24 races, Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing after 13 years to move to JGR, where he takes over the No. 20 from Joey Logano (who is now at Penske Racing).
“He’s got so much experience, he’s won the Daytona 500 more than once, he’s got his championship, so to me he’s going to be a reliable source,” Hamlin said. “The thing is that our three-car team, we never had all of our cars running up front at the same time, where we could use information from both Kyle (Busch) and Joey.
“Now we have a guy we know is going to make the Chase, who we know is going to be up front, so I think he’s going to make our race team better.”
For Hamlin, the goal is clear, and so is the path.
He’s made the Chase every year since moving to Cup full time in ’06 and has finished second (’10) and third (’06) in the points, but a title has eluded him. Hamlin believes if he can win at least six races and post 18-19 top-five finishes and 23-24 top 10s, he should be in the running for a title when the series hits Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17.
“For us, every year is championship or nothing,” he said. “So I know exactly in my head what we need to be a championship contender. We’re taking it seriously and we need to capitalize on these championship runs that we’re making.”
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Hamlin took his seat minutes before the Hawks and Bobcats introductions. It’s a courtside vantage point directly next to the visitor’s bench that has allowed him earlier this season to take a picture with the Knicks’ J.R. Smith, but he won’t be riling up the Bobcats’ competition.
“No,” he said. “The other team’s coach is sitting right by me.”
With 5:16 remaining in the first quarter Hamlin joined the Bobcats announcing team of Steve Martin and Dell Curry before sitting in with the Hawks duo of Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins. Along with discussing Daytona, Hamlin said he offered up his own in-game analysis.
“I just said Atlanta was playing big, so we should be able to run on them,” Hamlin said.
The Bobcats took his advice, cutting the Hawks’ lead to seven points with 5:40 left in the game but after a Johan Petro 3-pointer and a Josh Smith jumper, Atlanta was back in charge and en route to a 104-92 victory.
Hamlin disclosed that this was the longest he had been away since the birth of his daughter and when asked if he was excited to get back to them, he quickly responded “Yeah, definitely.”
The new father went home bearing a gift, one that came wrapped in a color scheme that looms large in his new family.