HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Perhaps it’s a testament to the depth of Joe Gibbs Racing’s personnel that Denny Hamlin posted a top-five finish last weekend, functioning without one of his team’s key cogs calling the shots from the pit box.
That didn’t make it any easier for Michael Wheeler, the team’s full-time crew chief, serving a suspension and watching Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota making laps without his oversight.
“Not being in the garage during a weekend, it’s more difficult and challenging than I thought,” Wheeler said Tuesday during a NASCAR.com shop visit to JGR’s headquarters. “I was kind of prepared for it last minute, but I was kind of in the mindset that this would be OK and we’ll get through it just fine. But every hour that goes by and the car’s on track and I’m not there and blind from what’s going on, I’m thankful that I’ve got a good group of guys around me that are handling the situation — but the moment the race started the other night, on Lap 2, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a bad feeling.’ This is a hard thing to get over.
“At the moment, it’s part of what it is. We’re getting through it, but it’s definitely not enjoyable at all.”
Wheeler, saddled with an L1-grade technical violation after Hamlin’s encumbered victory at Darlington Raceway, served the first race of a two-event suspension in last weekend’s regular-season finale. He’ll sit out the second race of his ban in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM), the postseason opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Ably stepping in last weekend to make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief debut was Chris Gabehart, who has guided Gibbs’ stalwart No. 20 operation to eight wins and 11 poles in the NASCAR XFINITY Series over the last two seasons. Gabehart’s late-race adjustments helped raise Hamlin and the No. 11 out of midpack purgatory to post his fifth top-five effort in the last six races.
But Hamlin said some adjustment was also necessary on his own behalf, providing feedback to new faces instead of having the familiar Wheeler as his primary go-to.
“I think your speed is built at the shop, but races won are sometimes on the pit box — your strategy calls and things like that,” Hamlin says. “I think the first week that we had to go through it, it definitely affected us in certain ways. I don’t think it affected the way we ran at Richmond; I think that was an overnight thing that we did. But yeah, it’s a different transition to work with someone new.”
Wheeler is scheduled to return Sept. 24 for the second event of the 10-race playoffs at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Hamlin prevailed in July. In the meantime, the 36-year-old driver seeking his long-awaited first premier-series crown is hoping to kick off his postseason march with a flashback to 2015, when he opened the playoffs with a Chicago victory.
This time, though, he’ll need to rely on JGR’s deep bench to pull it off.
“One more week and we’ll get through it,” Hamlin said. “We just have to make sure we have a good solid week at Chicago and move on.”