‘Wheels’ up: Denny Hamlin, new crew chief in it for long haul
Denny Hamlin’s 2016 crew chief, Mike Wheeler, is the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s third pit boss in as many years.
So should one assume if the upcoming Sprint Cup season doesn’t produce big results that Hamlin might be assigned yet another crew chief to lead his No. 11 team in 2017?
According to the veteran driver — who spent 2012-2014 with crew chief Darian Grubb before just one season with Dave Rogers — things are going to be different with Wheeler, a long-time JGR race engineer for Hamlin before he became a XFINITY Series crew chief for JGR last season.
"He’s been with me in some capacity throughout my career," said Hamlin, who joined the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2006 and was paired with crew chief Mike Ford from 2006-2011. "He’s my guy, he’s going to be my guy until I retire; there’s no doubt about that.
"This is what we’ve built toward. This has been in the workings for a very, very long time. From our standpoint I thought he’d be in XFINITY a little bit longer, but when he chose to move up, obviously I didn’t want to loan him to anybody else for another year, so we made the switch."
Hamlin and Wheeler are certainly no strangers to one another. In addition to his longtime role as race engineer with the No. 11 team, Wheeler served as crew chief for Hamlin in six races in 2014 while Grubb was on suspension.
Hamlin scored three top-10 finishes in his six races with Wheeler atop the No. 11 pit box, and last year won three of six XFINITY Series races he entered with Wheeler as his crew chief.
No wonder Hamlin is convinced that the man he affectionately "Wheels" will be his fourth and final crew chief in NASCAR’s top division.
"Me and Mike were going to work together eventually," Hamlin said during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom. "We had kind of a handshake deal that when he moved to Cup I was going to be — no matter what the circumstances — I was going to be made available for him. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now, and really now everyone’s got who they want (in terms of crew chiefs at JGR), and I feel like this should be where everyone’s going to stay for a really long time."
In his lone season with Rogers — who has moved over to lead teammate Carl Edwards’ team — Hamlin made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and won two points races, along with the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So while Hamlin is pumped about being paired with Wheeler, it wasn’t like he was eager to see Rogers go.
"I liked working with Dave," Hamlin said. "Me and Dave had a great relationship and we were very successful, maybe not in the win column — we won three races with the All-Star — but were very close, and we were really in a good position in the Chase, if not for a mechanical failure.
"So I was very happy with where I was, but ultimately things had to get moved around, and ‘Wheels’ is going to move up, and I had to kind of grab ‘Wheels’ because we had already made a vow to each other that we would be working together for a long time. So that’s kind of how it worked out."