Denny Hamlin had the type of season last year that demands change. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran went winless for the first time in his 13 years of full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driving. His top-10 rate tied for the second lowest of his career, save for his injury-affected 2013 season. He was bounced from the playoffs after the first round, marking the fourth straight year that Hamlin wasn’t a part of the final race for the championship.
“Ultimately, we just didn’t perform as well as we wanted, especially through the summer,” Hamlin says. “We started to get it figured out there towards the end of the year, which is too little too late. Getting eliminated in the first round is just unacceptable for us. Obviously, management felt like a change needed to be made.”
That change came in the form of Hamlin’s crew chief and longtime friend Mike Wheeler losing his job and leaving JGR in the offseason. The move made Hamlin emotional when the news broke in November, but he understood the reasoning.
“I had five points wins with Wheels over three years,” Hamlin said then. “That’s just under two a year. With the organization that we’re in, we expect more than that. It’s not solely on him. I share as much of the blame.”
While Wheeler heads over to crew chief Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 95 Toyota this season, Hamlin welcomes Chris Gabehart atop the pit box.
“We’ve worked together before,” Hamlin says. “I’m confident that we’re gonna be heading in the right direction. I have no doubts that we’ll return to Victory Lane multiple times.”
Hamlin’s current winless streak stands at 47 races entering the Daytona 500 and spans back to the Sept. 3, 2017, win at the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. That’s Hamlin’s longest losing streak since he went 50 races between wins in 2008 and 2009.
Hamlin believes the crew chief change will mix nicely with this season’s big shift in the Cup series car rules that limit horsepower and drastically increase downforce.
“It’s definitely gonna be different. I think you really gotta start over from scratch,” Hamlin says. “I don’t think there’s any notes that’ll be able to be applied within our situation, having a new crew chief coming in. It’s gonna be a completely level playing field for us. I feel like that’s a really good thing.”
The Virginia native is also anticipating improvement for JGR now that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are operating in-house instead of as close technical partners at the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. Truex will take over the No. 19 team at JGR in place of Daniel Suarez.
“Cole and Martin were a strong alliance with us, but they always were able to just go do their own thing,” Hamlin says. “When you’re able to just go work on your own car and everything, you can sometimes do things quicker than what you can when you’re a four-team organization. A lot of times they don’t wanna release anything until everybody has the ability to have it, so I think it’ll probably be a bigger change for them more so than it will be for us. Certainly, I’m excited to see really the inner workings of how Cole and Martin work within our team.”
Hamlin’s opinion on the 2019 rule changes is more positive than that of other drivers. He sees opportunity in races on bigger tracks that will “look a lot like a Truck race.”
“The drafting type races I’ve always excelled in, so that’s where I’ll see a tremendous advantage,” Hamlin says. “As a driver, you’ve gotta be strategically really smart about when you make your passes. I think that that’s the advantage that I’ll have.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 20/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)