Denny Hamlin left his driver’s uniform and helmet at home and opted for a business suit and his lobbyist hat as he called on members of Congress on Thursday.
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Hamlin, who pilots the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has been a spokesperson for the March of Dimes for the last six years. But before turning to his day job at Dover Downs this weekend, Hamlin was on Capitol Hill to drum up support for the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Reauthorization Act (S. 1417/H.R. 1281).
“For me, it’s easy when it’s an organization like the March of Dimes,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t take much persuading. One in nine babies are born premature and it’s not just the financial toll it takes on the families, but really the government.
“It’s like $26 million a year is spent after these children are born premature going into helping them be healthy. If we can help prevent that, that’s not only going to be a big benefit for the families and the kids not having the diseases that go along with being premature, but it also is better for the government.”
Hamlin was accompanied by March of Dimes National Ambassador Child Nina Centofanti, 8, who was born nine weeks premature, and supermodel Niki Taylor. It didn’t take Hamlin long to build a rapport with Taylor, who is married to former NASCAR driver Burney Lamar.
“We are both very passionate about kids — and our kids,” Taylor said. “With Denny being a new dad and I’m a mom of four healthy kids so I feel like it’s my responsibility to help out any way I can. What I love about the March of Dimes is they’ve been doing this for 75 years. They’re the number one resource for moms to have healthy babies and a full-term pregnancy.
“So this was a no-brainer. Nothing is more important than my kids.”
The advocates’ tour began with one of Taylor’s local senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building and then moved to the Capitol Building, where Hamilton visited his former congressman House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“He’s a local guy,” said Hamlin, who hails from Chesterfield, Va. “He knows right what high school I graduated from and really is from right down the road. Eric is a great guy. I’ve known Eric for a little while and always kind of keep up with him and what he does. To take time away from his busy day and obviously this is a really busy time in our government right now and he’s been great to us.”
Hamlin’s lobbying effort concluded with one of his local senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina. The senior senator from the Tar Heel State quickly met with the Centofanti family and listened intently to Hamlin and Taylor’s concerns. Before the meeting concluded, Burr mentioned his “disappointment” that Joe Gibbs was “too cheap” to send a car with Hamlin. The driver agreed that his boss was frugal, but offered Burr a 1:24 scale replica of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota for his outer office/trophy room.
Burr’s parting advice for Hamlin? “Drive fast and stay away from the concrete,” said the senator.
For Hamlin, whose season changed dramatically after contact with Joey Logano sent him reeling into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in March, avoiding “concrete” is foremost in his mind. Although Hamlin has been plagued with back problems throughout most of his career, the ACS wreck led to a compression fracture of his vertebra. Hamlin was sidelined for four races, but four additional wrecks since his return along with a grueling schedule has exacerbated the issue.
“I had some treatment done two weeks ago that usually lasts me about a month to a month and a half,” Hamlin said. “Just basically got some shots to relieve pain and hopefully what it’s going to do is buy me a month and a half of relief to get healthy. The problem with our schedule is that I don’t have enough time at home to rehab and do all the things I need to do to get better so I need the off-season. I need that time to do it.
“Now I’ve got some relief, the last two weeks have been really great as far as pain is concerned so now I’m hoping this next month and a half — from now until the end of the season I can spend time doing all the hard regimen stuff that I can do that way I’ll see if it’s not relieved by the end of that month and a half term whether I will need surgery or not.”
Given Hamlin’s gimpy state, his greatest contribution to Joe Gibbs Racing is helping his teammates — including newcomer Matt Kenseth, acclimate to the organization. Although Hamlin’s results on the track this season have been lackluster, Kenseth has seven wins and is leading the point standings. Both Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who have multiple wins at New Hampshire, helped bring Kenseth up to speed at the track where he had never won.
“My job is really on Mondays and really Saturday evenings is to debrief with his crew chief and talk about track changes typical things that we fight at tracks we’ve been successful at,” Hamlin said. “Sometimes Matt’s in a Nationwide race so I’ll talk to him about what we fought and what we thought would be better for the next day and it’s worked for him. They’ve used setups similar to what we’ve had in the past at tracks that we’ve been successful and they’re really just hitting on all cylinders right now.
“We talk through text messaging daily and really I told him that, ‘I hate I’m not being a better teammate to you.’ He says, ‘You’re being way better than you imagined because I use so much of your data when we go to these race tracks.’ Obviously, we’re on kind of our own island at this point — sometimes running different motors and chassis trying to develop next year.”
Hamlin joked when his daughter Taylor was born on Jan. 20 at 20:20 (military time) and measured 20 inches, that he would petition to have his number changed or guarantee “it was a sign of things to come” for Kenseth.
“He’s been a great guy and a great teammate,” Hamlin said. “I apologize to him week in and week out that I’m not able to do more for him.”
Away from the track, Hamlin’s impact can be felt with the awareness he brings to the March of Dimes. On Thursday night, Hamlin became just the fourth recipient of “the Champion for Babies” award. Hamlin joined an esteemed group of fellow luminaries from the sports world including Arnold Palmer, Joe Namath and Greg Gumbel. Although Hamlin acknowledged that his professional season has been a disappointment, the 32-year-old racer has learned this year that there’s a lot more to life than driving stock cars.
“In my mind I don’t even think about the on-the-track stuff while you’re here lobbying to these senators,” Hamlin said. “For me, it just kind of puts things in perspective and when you hear the stories that Nina has gone through and her family, it makes it a little bit easier to swallow the season that you’ve had.”