Denny Hamlin walked into the Joe Gibbs Racing shop in December and noticed a change. As he was meeting with new crew chief Dave Rogers, Hamlin saw that yellow had largely replaced black on the cars and equipment for his No. 11 team. Even the hauler was different.
“I looked at him and said, ‘I guess I’m pretty much driving the No. 18 car,’” Hamlin says. “He said ‘Yeah, pretty much, other than we get to bring your pretty fast pit crew over here.’”
Hamlin won’t actually drive the No. 18 this season — he’s still in the familiar No. 11 Toyota with FedEx as the primary sponsor — but he will be part of a reshuffled program. Hamlin’s former crew chief Darian Grubb has been assigned to lead Carl Edwards’ No. 19 team as JGR expands to four Sprint Cup cars.
“I think it’s a great deal for me, and really Carl is stepping in to a great situation with Darian,” Hamlin says. “I know what he’s capable of doing. (Carl)’s really getting all of my A-team mechanics and everything, so no one got slighted on this deal whatsoever.”
Rogers moves to direct Hamlin after more than five years leading the charge for fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch. This season marks the first time that Hamlin and Rogers will have worked together at the Sprint Cup level — but not the first otherwise. They have previous experience as crew chief and driver for the JGR Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program.
Rogers worked as Hamlin’s crew chief in NASCAR’s second-tier series during the 2006-07 seasons. Together, they collected five wins, 23 top 5s, 39 top 10 and 12 poles in just 57 combined races. Those were extraordinary numbers for a JGR program that, in 395 starts from 1997-2005, scored just three wins.
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For this duo to dominate once again, JGR will need to improve. The organization won twice last season but only once on an intermediate track. Hamlin, despite making two serious championship bids since 2010, believes JGR is still trying to level up to its peers. “We’ve always kind of been that next-tier team, realistically,” Hamlin says. “We can compete for race wins week-in and week-out, but the championships have escaped us through mechanical stuff.”
Hamlin says the team sacrificed speed to fix that last year so now they can race without the worry of a DNF. Now, the focus will be on sharing information, a weak point for Toyota compared to other manufacturers but one JGR hopes to fix with an additional car and more personnel.
It’s been two full seasons since Hamlin, a 24-time winner in the top series, visited Victory Lane more than once in a single season (in a points-paying event). The pairing with new crew chief Rogers and the additional resources brought to the JGR team by Edwards — an elite driver in his own regard — may be the answer needed to change that. If not, the No. 11 team will become an interesting story to watch early. Hamlin’s contract is up following the 2015 season, and he’s arguably the strongest potential free agent. Stay tuned.
Dynamic drafter Hamlin proved to be last season’s most prolific driver at the restrictor plate tracks. At Daytona, he scored wins in the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel race, and he finished second and sixth, respectively, in the two points-paying races. He scored his lone points-paying win of 2014 at Talladega.
He takes his talent to South Beach Since 2006, Hamlin has won twice, finished third twice and led 213 laps in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led 50 laps and averaged a third-place running position in 2014.
Martinsville strength Fans of Hamlin are quick to discuss his ability at Martinsville, but the four-time Martinsville winner hasn’t scored a finish better than fifth since the fall 2010 race. Still, he has managed to lead 272 laps during his seven-race drought.
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: FedEx, Sport Clips
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Year With Current Team: 11th
Under Contract Through: 2015
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2010)
Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: Nov. 18, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.