HAMLIN HITS THE LINKS AT WASTE MANAGEMENT PHOENIX OPEN

Denny Hamlin hits a shot out of the bunker during the Annexus Pro-Am at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
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In years past, January in the NASCAR world has meant preseason testing at Daytona as a new season fast approached. With NASCAR’s new testing policy in place for the 2015 season, drivers found themselves with a bit more time off prior to the start of Speedweeks.

Denny Hamlin took advantage of some of that free time to hit the links in the Waste Management Phoenix Open Annexus Pro-Am on Wednesday. Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, was grouped with fellow FedEx spokesman and Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate Jerome Bettis and defending PGA TOUR FedEx Cup winner Billy Horschel.

An avid golfer, Hamlin played an integral role in Team Horschel’s -8 finish with several impressive shots from the fairway and a number of strong drives. Bettis was the star of the group on the green, and the former Pittsburgh Steelers star drew a loud cheer from the crowd when he birdied TPC Scottsdale’s famous 16th hole.

After the round, Hamlin said that the opportunity to walk 18 holes in postcard-perfect weather here in the Valley has him looking forward to the CampingWorld.com 500 on March 15.

“It’s so fun to come out here. It’s my favorite city,” Hamlin said. “If there’s anywhere I would retire, it would be right here. I enjoy coming out here, so we’re going to stay out here until the 500 – really when I need to be down in Daytona – to relax and play some golf.”

Don’t let that comment fool you, though. Hamlin is eager to get to Daytona and hopes to replicate the success the 11 team had there last February – and to build off of last season’s third-place finish in the Chase.

“We’re looking forward to it. Our FedEx team was so close last year to winning the championship,” he said. “It’s kind of unique going back to Daytona, a race track where we had a lot of success last year, obviously winning all of the races but one, and then the momentum that we have from the Chase that we hopefully will carry in there, so we’ve got a lot to look forward to and we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Hamlin, who was a strong proponent of the new Chase format last fall, expects his fellow drivers to tweak their on-track strategy a little this year in the second go-round, now that the whole field understands what it takes to make, and advance in, the Chase.

“I think what’s going to happen is people are going to know and get smarter on what it takes to make the Chase,” he said. “Once you have stats associated with who made it and who didn’t last year, people are going to start realizing what those stats are and they’re going to drive smarter, and it’s going to become harder to make it round by round, the longer this format stays the same.”

Two weeks from Thursday, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Camry will roll onto the track for the first time in 2015 at Daytona International Speedway to kick off Speedweeks. But before he exchanges that golf glove for driving gloves, he’s going to take advantage of the beautiful springtime Phoenix weather for just a little while longer.

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