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Menzer: Kansas finish exemplifies new team concept

April 23, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Menzer: Kansas finish exemplifies new team concept
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Mentality of Hamlin-Truex Jr. finish exemplifies new era of collaboration

Denny Hamlin saw who was in front of him as he entered the home stretch of Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway and knew he couldn't lose.

"...We've all got to work together to all run well. That's our main goal: to run well for Toyota and make them a championship contender and a championship manufacturer."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Or, better put, he knew he wouldn't feel like a loser no matter what happened in the closing laps between his No. 11 Toyota and the No. 56 Toyota being driven by Martin Truex Jr. that was leading the race at the time.

Welcome to this new world of collaboration in NASCAR. Although both drive Toyotas, Hamlin drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and Truex drives for Michael Waltrip Racing. Maybe that used to mean they were rivals; now it means they're inching closer to becoming teammates of sorts.

"You know, at the end, it's a no-lose situation for myself because I'm a fan of Martin's, I'm a fan of Michael Waltrip and they've really done some great things with that program," Hamlin said after eventually getting by Truex on Lap 237 of the 267-lap event, and holding the No. 56 off over the final 30 laps for the victory.

"It was a good day for Toyota because Michael Waltrip Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing have a bond that's working better and better together, obviously, with the common-engine package and everything, so we're starting to see these Toyotas start to make a run."

It was the second win of the young season for the No. 11 team, which added Darian Grubb as crew chief in the offseason and lauded a new era of information exchange with fellow Toyota-fueled organizations -- especially that of MWR.

Grubb's take

Grubb, of course, was the championship-winning crew chief for driver Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Chevrolet team for Stewart-Haas Racing last season. All that earned him was a pink slip from that organization, which traded Grubb and his set of skills for that of another respected and veteran crew chief in Steve Addington.

Grubb didn't stay unemployed for long. In addition to entering a new era of cooperation with fellow Toyota teams, there were those inside JGR who thought the driver-crew chief relationship between Hamlin and Mike Ford had grown more than a little stale. Even at their best, it seemed there was merely sort of a begrudging respect between those two.

So in came Grubb, but it was more than that. He was asked Sunday if the situation now developing between JGR and MWR is similar to the relationship the two-car team at SHR had last season with Hendrick Motorsports, which fields four race teams.

"It's a little bit similar, but not completely because we're not running the same chassis," Grubb said. "We're running the same engine package, but that's really the only thing."

Well, it's not the only thing. Grubb also brought a personal touch to the job that is serving him well when it comes to working with his fellow crew chiefs. At JGR, that means Dave Rogers of Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota and Jason Ratcliff of Joey Logano's No. 20. And then there are the three crew chiefs employed by MWR -- Chad Johnston on Truex's machine, Brian Pattie on the No. 15 driven by Clint Bowyer and Rodney Childers on the No. 55 driven by Mark Martin and others.

"The rest of it is just the crew-chief relationships," Grubb admitted. "Chad Johnston, Brian Pattie and Rodney Childers are all good friends of mine, so having those one-on-one friendships is probably better than anything, because we actually communicate.

"We agree not to lie to each other. That's probably the bigger thing."

Honesty is the best policy

Agreeing not to lie to each other in NASCAR is akin to holding a good poker hand on a Friday night and, well, maybe not telling the friend sitting next to you exactly what's in your hand, but at least not trying to completely snooker him as badly as the rest of the guys at the table.

That said, Hamlin pointed to another reason that exchanging a certain amount of information with the gang at MWR makes complete sense. The MWR guys are building better cars and going faster, giving them more relevant information with which to trade.

Case in point: even though Truex eventually had to settle for second Sunday, his was the dominant car for the majority of the race. He led a race-high 173 laps.

Last year, Truex led a total of 153 laps in the entire 36-race season. He's already led 278 this season, and sits second in the point standings behind only Greg Biffle.

Tale of two drivers


Denny Hamlin came on late to wrestle the Kansas win away from Martin Truex Jr., in a race that saw the two-man domination as the story.

"For us, I felt like we had a leg up on those guys for the past couple years," said Hamlin, who is sixth in points. "I drove their cars, they drove our cars [during testing] at Charlotte last year, and I feel like we've probably learned a lot about each other's programs through doing that.

"You've obviously seen how well their cars are running this year. We know personally on our side how much hard work that takes to make that big of a jump. So it's pretty commendable that ... they've hired some good people over there. They've got good drivers over there, and I feel like as well as they're running, we can feed off of them. And when we run well, they can feed off of us."

Hamlin continued to speak to the brand link.

"I think there are only really six big Toyota cars out here, and we've all got to work together to all run well. That's our main goal: to run well for Toyota and make them a championship contender and a championship manufacturer."

As MWR has become more viable, so has the organization's leverage in the area of information exchange.

"It's good to see that we can now use some feedback from those guys," Hamlin said. "It's tough using feedback from teams that run 20th or so because you've got to kind of take it for what it is. But when you have five or six Toyotas all running up toward the front, then you really can start to tune in your program better and better."

Grubb said the key is to keep just enough information to yourself that, when it comes to crunch time like it did on Sunday in Kansas, you might just have a little something extra for even your pseudo-teammate that he didn't quite expect or simply cannot match. So there is a limit to what the crew chiefs at JGR and MWR are willing to exchange.

"I might not tell you everything, but I'll be honest if you ask a question," Grubb said. "And that's why we try to treat each other with respect and we know what is going to help each other. But we also try to keep a few things under our hat to help us win."

After all, no matter what Hamlin says, finishing first is always better than finishing second. Only a loser would contend otherwise.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.