Denny Hamlin opens up on mid-playoffs pit-crew swap

FORT WORTH, Texas — With just two of its cars remaining in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs after early ends to championship eligibility for each of its two past title winners, Joe Gibbs Racing is all hands on deck to ensure another trophy comes back to the shop after Phoenix.

As such, the Toyota-backed organization opted to swap the entire-pit crew personnel of Round of 12 driver Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 squad for the No. 18 contingent of Kyle Busch, who was eliminated after the Round of 16. The change, announced earlier this week, takes effect starting with Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM) at the 1.5-mile track.

MORE: JGR swaps Nos. 11, 18 pit crew personnel | Texas schedule

The new lineups are as follows:

 No. 11: Thomas Hatcher (front tire changer), Lee Cunningham (tire carrier), C.J. Bailey (rear tire changer), Kellen Mills (jack), Matthew Tyrrell (fueler).
 No. 18: Blake Houston (front tire changer), Jacob Holmes (tire carrier), Michael Hicks (rear tire changer), Derrell Edwards (jack), Justin White (fueler).

Hamlin, still in search of his first championship despite a Hall-of-Fame-worthy resumé otherwise, talked about the change Saturday at TMS and downplayed any potential learning curves to iron out over the season’s final seven races.

“Yeah, two of them were my guys last year; Kellen and one of the other guys (were) on my team last year,” said the two-time 2022 winner. “So yeah, it’s, you know, (Busch and I) don’t enter the box that differently. When you think about what would be the variation between me and Kyle, the way we enter the box is pretty similar. So I think that it should be pretty seamless for everyone.”

Pit road has been a bit of a quagmire for the No. 11 team — both in the box itself with myriad issues, and in terms of Hamlin managing his speed on the way there — and the chances weren’t favorable that the team would put a seven-race, mistake-free stretch to close out the season as the pressure mounted. The organization elected to push for change sooner than later, and across the board rather than trying to piece together the right formula.

NASCAR is a team sport, however, and Hamlin knows the prospect of racing for a championship to being out of the playoffs is a disappointment for the crew members he’s ridden with for the season’s first 29 races.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly tough for those guys,” Hamlin said. “And I hate it because I love their attitude, swagger, all that about my 11 team. And, you know, certainly, they’re as important to this championship run as anyone but, you know, we had to do something different. Certainly the results at the end of the day, you know, the consistency was tough, but this is a kind of a JGR decision and they felt like this is the best avenue to getting the quickest results in the shortest amount of time was just for placing an entire team versus one person or the other.”

Hamlin will roll off eighth in Sunday’s 500-miler.