Denny Hamlin’s alarm blares loudly early on Monday mornings, waking him from a deep slumber after a long weekend of racing.
He drags himself out of bed as many drivers are probably still sleeping off Sunday’s race, but the NASCAR veteran has a long day ahead thanks to his two daughters. Hamlin wakes up eight-year-old Taylor and three-year-old Molly, then gets them ready for school. Hamlin co-parents the girls with their mother, Jordan Fish, but he has them to himself “a lot of the time,” he says. So you can add single dad to his responsibilities, which also includes driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and being a co-owner of 23XI Racing, another Cup Series team.
“You try to do the best you can,” Hamlin says. “It is a lot. I never would have dreamed of being able to do it, but I had no choice. I put myself in these positions, and I was the one that decided that I wanted to own a race team as well. It's been a lot, but what’s been great about it is that I’ve had good results in all areas.
“Certainly my driving career, we’re off to a very hot start with our 11 FedEx team. And the 23 team is continuing to get better, and I feel like I’m doing my part as a dad.”
Once Hamlin drops the kids off at school, he focuses on Joe Gibbs Racing on Mondays. He does his workouts and meets with the team in the afternoon, analyzing data and trying to give his crew chief more information. So far, so good: Hamlin hasn’t won a race yet, but he still leads the pack with 379 points, 76 more than second-place Martin Truex Jr., who has two wins under his belt. Eight races into the season, Hamlin has finished in the top-five seven times. His lowest finish was at Homestead, where he came in 11th.
But then, come four or five in the afternoon, Hamlin’s dad hat is back on as he drops Taylor off at her extracurriculars—dance, singing lessons and acting school. He gets dinner and eats with Molly before picking up Taylor again.
An eight-year-old definitely “requires a lot of attention,” Hamlin says with a laugh, and “is an absolute handful.” If it involves singing or dancing, Taylor is all over it. Does he wish she were a little more into sports, maybe played golf like her old man? Sure. But Hamlin realizes the importance of supporting her.
Meanwhile, don’t let Molly’s age fool you. The three-year-old is fiercely independent, Hamlin says. “Hopefully the oldest one doesn’t bring any of the bad habits with the youngest one. But they’re fun. I mean, they’re a lot of fun. I enjoy every day, taking care of them and kind of raising them, and their mom is doing a great job as well.”
The cycle continues throughout the week, alternating between raising two young girls and work. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, however, are typically solely for 23XI Racing, the team he co-owns with NBA legend (and longtime friend) Michael Jordan.
The idea was born about a year ago when Hamlin, who turned 40 last November, got a brief glance into what his postracing life might look like when the COVID-19 pandemic put the NASCAR season on hold. Hint: It involved a lot of golf, something that made the driver pause even though he enjoys the sport.
“All of a sudden, I got nothing,” Hamlin says. “My crew chief doesn't have anything for me. We're not looking forward to anything. We're just gonna stop. I could only play golf so many days, and I was just like if this is what retirement is like, I need to find something to do.
“I always knew that I wanted to run a business, but I just didn’t know what that business was going to be.”
He started “kicking the tires” and spoke with some race teams as well as his partners in Toyota about ownership. Turns out, they were willing to back him.
“They had a desire to have me as one of their owners,” Hamlin says. “A lot of the owners that are in our sport are starting to age out. Where are the younger owners coming from? And so they were willing to support me in this endeavor.”
Hamlin expected it to take a few years before the company came to fruition. That is until a fake news article started circulating that he and Jordan were looking to purchase Richard Petty Motorsports. Up until this point, the basketball star had not been involved in the exploratory process.
He forwarded the article to Jordan as a joke, saying, “Hey, looks like we’re partners. Congrats.
“He responded with, ‘Well, it’s fake. But if you want to make it real news, let me know,’ ” Hamlin says. “And I quickly flew down to Florida and had a meeting with him to get this done. That’s how it all came together.”
On Sept. 21, 2020, Jordan and Hamlin announced that they formed a single-car team and signed Bubba Wallace to a multiyear deal to drive for them. They decided to call the team 23XI Racing, which is pronounced “twenty-three eleven” in honor of both of their numbers.
“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I've been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” said Jordan in the press release. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me. Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”
Right now, Jordan serves as the principal owner while Hamlin continues to compete for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team, though, does have an alliance with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. It allows Hamlin to go from JGR to the 23XI shop, and say, Here’s what our mentality is. How can I help them with their process to get better? When it comes to the competition side, Hamlin says he’s left to steer the company where he feels it needs to go.
“Hopefully, I don't screw it up,” Hamlin jokes, “and [I can] do his name and his legacy proud.”
It is different racing alongside Wallace now that they work together, Hamlin says. And while he looks for ways to support him, Hamlin’s full focus is on his own driving career and his quest for a first Cup Series championship after 12 top 10 finishes, including runner-up in 2010.
“I’m not gonna be here for forever. You know, I have big goals that I want to accomplish, there’s a win total I want to get to, there’s championships that I want to win,” Hamlin says. “And I can’t let the opportunity of what my future is interfere with what the present is, and that’s accomplishing the goals of something I’ve wanted to do ever since I’ve been eight years old.”
With the new season in full swing, Hamlin has noticed subtle changes in the sport after Wallace was thrust into the spotlight in the wake of the social justice movements that took the country by storm. The crowd has started to become more diverse, Hamlin says.
“He’s prompted change within the sport that I think has been very good,” Hamlin says. “NASCAR has done a great job themselves of changing the sport and changing the narrative of the good old boy sport from the southeast, [to] we’re a national organization now that races all over the country.”
Hamlin did speak with his daughters as he and Jordan made the historic move, and he said his oldest does understand the weight of it now, especially after meeting Jordan at Daytona.
He hopes that Molly and Taylor are able to learn from him. “If it’s something that you want to be good at, then you have to designate time to do it. You have to see the fruits of your labor,” Hamlin says. He was referring to his driving career, but he could just as easily be describing fatherhood.
“It makes you vulnerable,” he says. “It makes you open your emotions up to different things that you wouldn’t have before.… You just have a softer side when you become a girl dad.”