Earlier this week, NASCAR came down hard on Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 team for multiple infractions discovered in post-race inspection at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Driver Denny Hamlin was docked 75 points and team owner Joe Gibbs was stripped of 75 owner points, while crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill were both suspended six races, and Grubb fined $125,000.
As a result, race engineer Mike Wheeler assumed the leadership role of the No. 11 team starting this weekend in Pocono.
While the penalty hurts the No. 11 team, Hamlin is still in Chase contention and history has shown teams can still win without their crew chief.
In fact, Grubb himself went to Victory Lane in the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson after crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended before the season even started.
With the advances in technology, communication and in-depth team rosters these days, does not having the crew chief at the track pose the same disadvantage it once did?
"I think not only the technology that you have — the communication technology — but really I’m in pretty good hands," Hamlin said. "I’m with the guy that I’ve been with for 10 years. I’ve been with Mike Wheeler longer than I’ve been with anyone in the Cup Series. We worked together a lot, and (I’m) pretty confident in the job that he’s going to do, but on top of that, then I get who was my car chief for 10 years, get him back to the racetrack. Even though it’s tough losing those guys, and it’s tough for them especially, I don’t think things will change at the racetrack too much. Darian is in constant contact with Wheels (Wheeler) at all times, and myself. So it’s not too bad as far as that’s concerned."
The added bonus? Hamlin said Grubb having more time to spend in the shop preparing cars will go a long way for the team once the Chase starts.
Last season, Hamlin’s JGR teammate Matt Kenseth won at Darlington Raceway with interim crew chief Wally Brown calling the shots after crew chief Jason Ratcliff was sidelined serving a suspension.
Friday at Pocono, Kenseth said that while Brown had crew chief experience and the team had a lot of depth, Ratcliff was "real close to it the whole time, as well."
"I think that it’s probably not as hard today as it was in the past just because of electronic communications and technology and all the ways they can chat on the computers," Kenseth said. "The way they can do all of that stuff, certainly, I think it makes it easier as far as the technical aspect and changes to the car and setups and all of that kind of stuff.
"You’re still missing your head coach," he added. "The guy who leads the people and gets them together and talks strategy and you’re still not looking in his eyes and talking face to face and doing all of that kind of stuff. So I think it’s not as hard as it was at one time, but I think certainly you’d still want him here."
While not having a crew chief at the track might not be the disadvantage it once was, for some crew chiefs, a suspension also hurts confidence and reputation.
"I think for somebody to say (the penalty) has no impact or it’s not severe enough, that’s crazy in my opinion," Brickyard 400-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "I mean, I think it’s very significant. This is my livelihood. It’s Darian’s livelihood. I can’t imagine being told you can’t do it for six weeks, how you have to handle that, deal with it, what that creates. … I think at the end of the day people’s livelihoods are at stake. This is how we make our living. This is our lives, what we put a huge amount of effort into. To say that’s insignificant, I definitely disagree with that."
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson also believes not having the crew chief on site is a major hurdle to overcome for any organization.
"It’s huge not having your crew chief there," Johnson said. "And the fact that we won without Chad at the track is pretty amazing, to be honest. The first portion of the suspension, the first week or two, it’s real tough on the morale. Everywhere you go, you’re answering questions. Today with social media, if you ever tune-in, you’re going to see a lot of stuff you don’t want to see. So there’s an emotional piece in the beginning that’s really tough."
Johnson pointed out, though, that while technology might be in place allowing constant monitoring and communication between the suspended crew chief and the team at the track, that face-to-face conversation can sometimes make all the difference.
"You are able to do those things like texting and making phone calls and send emails and watch on television and tune into some of those things our fans use with various apps and all that kind of stuff just to see what kind of input is coming in," he said. "But the element of truly having a conversation with someone and understanding how tight the car might be or how uncomfortable you might be, that element is so vital in our sport. And when somebody is in North Carolina and the others are at the track, it’s impossible to get that pulled together."
Despite the technology and access to instant communication, teams have dealt with crew chief suspensions in a variety of ways with a variety of success. How Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 JGR team react to this new challenge headed into the Chase has yet to be seen, but whether they like it or not, that challenge starts this weekend at Pocono.