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Hamlin, No. 11 crew hope to weather the storm

August 01, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

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Team focused, but in a holding pattern until return of crew chief Darian Grubb

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LONG POND, Pa. -- Denny Hamlin said while the loss of crew chief Darian Grubb will be felt, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver is confident his team can weather the storm and “by Chase time, we’ll be a contender.”

Grubb, Hamlin’s crew chief on the No. 11 Toyota since the end of the 2011 season, is absent from Pocono Raceway this weekend as he begins serving a six-week suspension, along with car chief Wesley Sherrill, for penalties following post-race inspection last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hamlin was penalized 75 driver and owner points while Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill were suspended. Team engineer Mike Wheeler is serving as interim crew chief during Grubb’s absence. JGR officials are appealing the penalties.

“It’s a tough deal. It’s something that obviously affects our team,” Hamlin said prior to Friday’s opening Sprint Cup practice at Pocono, “but there are obviously other opportunities as well for us to go out there and get our stuff going.

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"As an organization we were heading in the right direction so it kind of sucks because you lose a little bit of that momentum, but you also know that regardless of whether we had that (issue) or not we were still running pretty fast last week and would've finished in the same spot."

Hamlin finished third at Indy, sandwiched in between teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

NASCAR said the penalty was the result of issues with block-off plates inside the car.

Hamlin said while Grubb isn’t at the track, “really I’m in pretty good hands.

"I've been with Mike Wheeler longer than I've been with anyone in the Cup Series,” he said. “We worked together a lot and I'm pretty confident in the job that he's going to do. … Even though it's tough losing those guys, and it's tough for them especially, I don't think things will change at the race track too much.

"Darian is in constant contact with (Wheeler) at all times and myself. So, it's not too bad as far as that's concerned."

The loss of a crew chief at the track "is a challenge," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "It's never fun being suspended.”

Knaus has spent time away from the track due to violations, most notably in 2006 when he was suspended for four races. Johnson won two of the four in his absence, including the season-opening Daytona 500.

"Then 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," Knaus said. 

"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."

Kenseth said the biggest issue won’t be car preparation, but what goes on at the track, that impacts a team when a crew chief is sidelined.

"You're still missing your head coach," he said. "The guy who leads the people and gets them together, talks strategy … you’re not looking in his eyes and talking face-to-face and doing all that kind of stuff.

"It's not as hard as it was at one time but I think certainly you'd still want him here."

Hamlin was 13th fastest in Friday's opening practice at Pocono. He is a four-time winner at the 2.5-mile track. Because he has one win this season (at Talladega), he’s likely sewn up a spot in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

"You use stuff like this as motivation to go out there and prove that you can run fast no matter what," he said. "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 bring. 

"We've got some great race tracks ahead of us -- a lot of them which we feel like we can win."

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