While the penalty to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota team, resulting in the suspension of crew chief Darian Grubb, continued to reverberate throughout the garage and media center at Pocono Raceway, there were varying reactions from the drivers as to just how impactful that situation really was to a race team.
And, as always, that reaction seemed very dependent on perspective, particularly whether the driver was in the thick of the experience at present or not.
“It’s a tough deal,” Hamlin, the driver currently in the throes of crew chief loss, said. “It’s something that obviously affects our team.”
“As an organization we were heading in the right direction so it kind of sucks because you lose a little bit of that momentum.”
During his media availability at Pocono Raceway, Hamlin definitely attempted to put the best face on losing his crew chief for six weeks, citing the technology available to the team and also his familiarity with interim crew chief Mike Wheeler as giving him some comfort in the situation.
“Darian is in constant contact with Wheels (Mike Wheeler) at all times and myself,” Hamlin said. “So, it’s not too bad as far as that’s concerned.”
“Really, I’m in pretty good hands,” Hamlin continued. “I’ve been with Mike Wheeler longer than I’ve been with anyone in the Cup Series. Even though it’s tough losing those guys, I get who was car chief for 10 years, get him back to the race track.”
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has also experienced crew chief loss due to suspension but is not currently in the throes of it, had a slightly different yet serious take on the situation.
“Oh, it’s huge not having your crew chief there,” the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Lowe’s Chevrolet said. “And the fact that we won without Chad (Knaus, crew chief) at the track is pretty amazing to be honest.”
“The first portion of the suspension, the first weekend or two, it’s real tough on the morale,” Johnson continued. “Everywhere you go, you’re answering questions. So, there’s an emotional piece in the beginning and that’s really tough.”
“Then you can’t wait for the first weekend’s practice to start and to figure out how you’re going to work through this and what kind of speed the car will have and how the team will perform”, Johnson said. “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.”
“But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Johnson said. “It’s such a difficult thing to go through.”
Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, had a different perspective, seeming to take any crew chief loss more in stride. In fact, from his vantage point, he did not think losing a crew chief to suspension was that bad at all.
“I think 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.”
In spite of minimizing the impact due to the technology, Kenseth did acknowledge that it is difficult simply from a lack of presence perspective when the crew chief is cast out due to a penalty.
“You’re still missing your head coach, 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,” Kenseth said. “So, I think it’s not as hard as it was at one time but I think certainly you’d still want him here.”
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon lent his perspective on losing a crew chief due to suspension.
“I think it depends on your communication and the overall team morale,” Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet, said. “The quality of the cars doesn’t go away. In some ways, that might allow a little bit more time preparing the cars at the shop.”
“But with the Chase format, I couldn’t imagine going through that without Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) calling the shots,” Gordon continued. “You build this special relationship with your crew chief and it would be strange and awkward to be doing that with someone else.”
“I think it’s impactful but it doesn’t mean you could not win races without them.”
Hamlin, the only driver currently in the throes of the crew chief loss experience, admitted that he is trying his best to be positive about the penalty situation involving his crew chief. In fact, the driver is taking the perspective of using it as the ultimate in motivation for his performance in the upcoming GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway.
“Well, you use stuff like this as motivation to go out there and prove that you can run fast no matter what and you can run well,” Hamlin said. “We were on a run there last month and a half to two months that I feel like our cars were really starting to turn the corner.”
“So, really, I’m excited about what these next six weeks brings,” Hamlin continued. “We’ve got some great race tracks ahead of us – a lot of them which we feel like we can win.”
Losing your crew chief indeed seems to be just a matter of perspective.