News & Media

For Hamlin, everything old seems new again

January 14, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's the same race car, with a FedEx logo on the hood and a No. 11 on the side, and once the season begins it will be back in its familiar black and orange colors. It's the same driver, that lanky Virginian in a flat-billed ball cap with a predilection for basketball and golf. It's the same race team, a three-car outfit owned by the fellow who once moonlighted as a professional football coach.

But for Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing organization, so much below the surface is different. Hamlin's No. 11 team, which bottomed out last season after coming within one race of the Sprint Cup championship in 2010, is at the center of a flurry of changes that have altered much about the Gibbs team -- from who is making the calls on the pit box, to who is watching from atop the spotter's stand, who what allies are being conferred with and what engines are turning under the hood. It's something of a reinvention of a team that enters every season with title aspirations, but too often has found itself outside the championship mix at the end.

"The way we're doing things in our shop, I feel like we're heading in the right direction."


Hence, the two new crew chiefs and three new spotters working for Gibbs this season. And a shift in engine-building late last year from JGR's in-house shop to Toyota Racing Development's facilities in California. And more information sharing with Michael Waltrip Racing, its manufacturer stable mate. Even Hamlin has made changes, moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., for a few months to try and clear his head and return to the race track refreshed. After a trying 2011 season, which began with a fire in the Gibbs engine shop and ended with Hamlin and Kyle Busch finishing much lower in the standings than expected, it's easy to see why.

"It was a trying year for everyone on the team, and coming back I feel we're stronger than we've ever been," Hamlin said Saturday, during the final day of Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway. "We've made a lot of changes within our organization, not just crew chiefs, but a lot of people. We've got a new spotter this year, all three teams have new spotters this year. So there's a lot of internal changes at JGR, and I feel like we've got good personnel. The way we're doing things in our shop, I feel like we're heading in the right direction, and because of that I feel like you're going to see a lot more success this year from everyone at Gibbs."

The only Gibbs driver with the same crew chief as last year is Busch, who will once again work with Dave Rogers. Greg Zipadelli, formerly the crew chief for Joey Logano, left to become competition director for old friend Tony Stewart, and Jason Ratcliff was promoted from the Nationwide Series to oversee the No. 20 team. And then there's the No. 11 program, where a trio that had been together for six years and won 17 races -- Hamlin, crew chief Mike Ford, and spotter Curtis Markham -- was broken up in the offseason. Into that picture steps crew chief Darian Grubb, who lost his job with Stewart last year even though the two won the Cup title.

"Even though he's a guy that's a little but quieter than a lot of crew chiefs, he's got a big heart," Hamlin said of Grubb, "and he's got the brains of about five of me."

After pushing eventual champion Jimmie Johnson to the finale at Homestead the year before, Hamlin had to settle for a wild-card entry into the Chase this past season, and wound up an unsatisfying ninth in the standings. Although the team was beset by mechanical problems -- most notably engine failures, which helped hasten the move to TRD -- Hamlin also felt the communication on his team wasn't what it should have been. That led to the eventual departures of not only Ford but also Markham, like Hamlin a former Virginia late-model star, and the man who called team president J.D. Gibbs during a short-track test and told him he needed to come look at this little-known driver.

"That part of it was really, really tough," said Hamlin, whose new spotter is Chris Lambert, who last year worked with Brian Vickers at since-shuttered Red Bull. "But Chris became available. He's a guy we'd been looking at for a while. I just feel like the way he communicates and all is giving me the information that I need. The trio of me and Mike and Curtis had been very successful, but I feel like it had all run its course over the six years together. It's hard to keep things fresh when you're together that long. Having two different guys on the radio this year that you've never heard before, if anything, it just gets you excited and rejuvenated, feeling like, hey, it's a new beginning, we're starting all over."

Toward that end, it probably hasn't hurt that Hamlin has left Charlotte to go live in the Arizona desert for a few months. "Ever since I was 8 years old, I've been consumed with racing. I've lived it, breathed it. Every day of the year I've been dealing with racing, since I was 8 years old. That's 23 years. So I needed a break. I needed to get away from Charlotte, because that's where everyone's at, and you see everyone, and everyone wants to talk about racing," he said.

"I just needed to get away from racing as a whole after last year and get rejuvenated, and I feel like moving away for a few months does that for me. I was so excited just to get to this test, and no one's ever excited about testing on a superspeedway. ... I'll go back [to Scottsdale] after here, and then we have a test in Texas. I'm going to be excited to go to that test. That's because I got away from it, I took a little bit of a break. I think that's what we needed after last year."

Out in Scottsdale, Hamlin has focused on working out and playing golf. He said his handicap, a year ago in the mid-20s, is down to single digits. Once his racing days are over, he hopes to make a run at the PGA Senior Tour. "That's a realistic goal," he said. Hamlin believes the physical and mental vacation from racing is important.

"Doing it for 23 straight years, you just need a break. If I'm going to do this for another 10, I've got to hit the reset button every now and then," he said. "I think it's good for some drivers to go all-out. Like Kyle Busch, he loves it so much, he wants to do it every single day. Other drivers, Jeff Gordon, myself, I don't think we need to live it and breathe it as much to get the same result. I think for each person, it works differently. For me, it's taking those breaks when I can get them."

Of course, Gordon has four championships at NASCAR's top level, and Hamlin is still chasing his first. The Gibbs driver hopes all the changes, both to his program and the Gibbs organization as a whole, will give him a better chance of getting there.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't be successful right off the bat," he said. "I think it's typical for me personally to start off slow -- and when I say slow, I mean five, six races into the season. But I think that's going to be a little bit shorter this year. There are some things we're going to try to implement with our cars that's going to be down the line and things like that. This type of racing is all about timing, and when you perform at the right time, and we need to perform our best in September."