Hamlin Motivated Without Crew Chief

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin says the penalty to the team is serving as motivation. (Photo: Getty Images)

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LONG POND, Pa. - Can Denny Hamlin win this weekend at Pocono Raceway without his crew chief and car chief?

Teammate Matt Kenseth won last year’s Southern 500 without crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Jimmie Johnson won twice in 2006 without Chad Knaus. Darian Grubb, then an engineer, filled in for Knaus in those races, helping Johnson win the Daytona 500 and at Auto Club Speedway. Now, it’s Grubb who is suspended after NASCAR discovered issues with rear firewall block-off plates last weekend at Indianapolis.

The penalty leaves Hamlin, who has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes, looking to continue that run without Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill for the next six races. Engineer Mike Wheeler will serve as Hamlin’s interim crew chief, while former car chief Chris Gillin will return to that position.

Joe Gibbs Racing plans to appeal the penalty, but has Grubb and Sherrill serving their penalties so if the team loses the appeal they’ll be back for the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. No date has been set for a hearing.

The result is that Grubb won’t be a voice Hamlin will hear on his radio when he’s in the car.

Grubb’s absence, though, might not be a damaging as some suggest.

“It is a challenge when you go through those situations,’’ Knaus said. “It’s never fun being suspended. But with the way things are today with your limited amount of practice time, the limited amount of things you can change on the race car, a crew chief being at the race track probably isn’t nearly as bad as it was the last time I was suspended quite honestly.

“I think Darian is going to have some opportunities to sit back and try to get focused on what he needs to do going into the Chase. Now preparation is the key. If they can get prepared before they leave North Carolina, before they get to the race track, I don’t think it’s going to bother them the least little bit. That is a solid team.’’

Hamlin, who is coming off a third-place finish at Indianapolis, admits with the penalty, “you lose a little bit of that momentum,’’ but he adds that “we were still running pretty fast last week and would have finished in the same spot. We’re pretty confident we’ll get through and by Chase time we’ll be a contender.’’

Hamlin said that he’s worked with Wheeler longer than anyone on his team. Communication won’t be an issue between them.

The penalty could have another impact, though.

“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,’’ said Hamlin, who was 13th in Friday’s practice session at Pocono. “We were on a run there last really 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. We've got some great race tracks ahead of us - a lot of them which we feel like we can win."

Just like Kenseth and Johnson did.

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