Jonathan Hassler said he felt he was on the same wavelength with Ryan Blaney even before the two forged what would become a championship-winning driver and crew chief combination. The two shared interests in music with country and its alt-offshoots, and more importantly, both found common ground in their easy-going demeanors.
Midway through the 2021 season, both were at a bit of a crossroads. Hassler was early in an interim stint as crew chief for the Team Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing operation, which was due for a shake-up at season’s end. Blaney’s crew chief – veteran Todd Gordon – had just announced his plan to retire from full-time competition at year’s end, creating a high-profile vacancy with Penske’s No. 12 team.
So, over beers at King Canary Brewing on the edge of Lake Norman, the two sat down and chopped it up.
“It was clear that I was either gonna be with somebody new or get on board with this awesome opportunity with Ryan,” Hassler said.
Two seasons later, Blaney and Hassler celebrated a shared first, breaking through for the NASCAR Cup Series championship with a sterling playoff performance in only Hassler’s second full season as a crew chief. The stock-car racing industry will raise their collective glasses to cheer their accomplishments this week in Nashville, where three days of festivities will lead up to Thursday evening’s NASCAR Awards ceremonies.
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There’s more, however, to Hassler’s path to the banquet’s head table than a midseason summit over suds. There’s the background of an Indiana native who got his start with karting and worked his way up the short-track ladder. There’s the high-school athlete who competed in multiple sports, helping his South Putnam Eagles to an appearance in the state-title football game on the home field of the Indianapolis Colts while juggling a racing schedule. There’s the Purdue graduate who found his place in the sport through engineering, even serving as the emcee to the Theta Tau fraternity’s annual Rube Goldberg Machine contest where student competitors create complex, purposely over-engineered contraptions to complete simple tasks. And there’s the long-serving, strong-silent lieutenant for Team Penske who didn’t miss once he got his shot in the big chair atop the pit box.
“That’s cool when you can win the championship with somebody like that, Jonathan, who’s a fairly new crew chief, our second year working together,” Blaney says. “He’s a man of few words, but yeah, super-smart guy. He and I get along great and cool to get our first one together. So I’d love to get some more with him because he does such a good job.”
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Jonathan Hassler says his involvement in racing started when he was 8 years old. “My grandfather and my dad, all my uncles, ran a trucking company growing up,” he says. “So definitely always around machinery, equipment, mechanical things.”
The competitive side of his mechanical bent came by chance. His father had a friend who ran a local go-kart track, and the friend’s son raced there. Hassler received an invite to fill in when the son was absent one weekend. “Two weeks later, we were there with our own stuff, and I never really looked back,” he says.
Hassler’s involvement led to national karting events, including a prominent pavement series in the Chicago region. Appearances at home-state tracks — Bakersfield Raceway Park in Linton, and US 24 Speedway in Logansport among them – were regular occurrences, and Hassler progressed to mini-sprints and eventually Late Model competition along the way.
All the while, Hassler kept his hand in high-school athletics, gradually shedding his sports pursuits as his commitment to racing grew. Baseball was the first to go during middle school, then track and field. Varsity basketball came next after his junior year of high school, but Hassler stuck with football, and with good reason.
Hassler, an Indiana High School Academic All-Star selection in 2002 as a defender, helped lead South Putnam High to a 12-3 record and a berth in the Class A state championship game at the RCA Dome in his senior year. His three interceptions helped to seal a rout against Perry Central in the state semifinals, leading the opposing coach to offer the Evansville (Ind.) Courier and Press a backhanded compliment: “We ended up making that defensive back look good.”
“I definitely couldn’t walk away from that,” Hassler said, noting that some weekends meant suiting up for the gridiron under Friday night lights, then leaving with a loaded-up trailer Saturday morning for the next race on the schedule. “That was definitely a highlight, and certainly being a part of teams like that growing up, I feel like it’s been a big part of kind of preparing me to be in a crew chief, team leader role.”
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Leadership in racing carried into his college years at Purdue University, where he made a close connection with Chris Gabehart – then a Boilermaker classmate and now crew chief for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team and driver Denny Hamlin in the Cup Series. The two had run in similar circles in the karting world and shared mutual interests in making a living in racing. Even into his college years, Hassler carried the hope that driving might be his pathway.
“I felt like I knew early on that I was obviously going to pursue driving, but that if driving didn’t work out there would be other opportunities after that,” Hassler says. “I wouldn’t say I gave up the thought of driving until partway through college, honestly. I always saw the potential for it. You’ve seen Purdue blow up with their motorsports involvement over the last couple of years. I always thought that the potential for that and kind of selfishly hoped that would happen while I was there and some driving opportunities might arise out of that, but never really came to fruition.”
His moment of realization led to another outlet for his racing dreams. Hassler helped found a school organization called “Opportunity Motorsports” as a gateway for students to find roles at the track on a local level.
“I kind of saw at that point that there was — no pun intended — just a huge opportunity there for people like me and even maybe people a little bit more separated from motorsports than I was, wanting to work in the sport but had zero idea how to get involved,” Hassler says. “And then there were always car owners who needed help getting them to the race track. So we definitely just tried to bridge that gap and do some good for everybody.”
Both Hassler and Gabehart have carried their Boilermaker roots into successful roles in stock car racing’s big leagues, and the two have remained close. Hassler says their families celebrate their children’s birthdays and have dinner periodically throughout the year as their busy schedules allow.
“I wouldn’t say he’s changed at all,” Hassler said. “He loves the sport, for sure. There’s no question. Like all of us, he devotes tons and tons of time to the sport.”
Jonathan Hassler’s first two opportunities to try out for his current role came five weeks apart in the spring of 2021. One arrived after a COVID-mandated absence, and a suspension for a lug nut infraction created the other. No matter the root cause, Hassler proved a point – to others and himself.
The results showed. Hassler stepped in for Greg Erwin at Martinsville in April, helping Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford to 12th place. With Paul Wolfe sidelined the following month, the Hassler-led No. 22 Team Penske group placed fifth with Joey Logano at Dover. In each case, the teams overcame early damage to post respectable finishes.
“It was definitely an audition,” Hassler recalled. “For me, it was always a job that I thought I wanted to do, but when you get out there in those fill-in roles, you have the actual crew chief kind of in your ear via other methods of communication most of the race, but you certainly still put yourself in that position, and you realize that it’s something that you either can do or can’t do. For me, it was definitely, all right, now we’re past wanting to do this. I know that I can do this.”
Years of work as a race engineer had prepared Hassler for those moments. He briefly worked for the former Ginn Racing team before landing with Team Penske in 2008, working on the Xfinity Series side for three years before reaching the Cup Series level.
Hassler said a change in his duties curbed his travel for the 2013 season, but that “Paul Wolfe kind of revived me there after a year off the road and brought me on to be the second engineer with him and Brad (Keselowski).” Hassler teamed with Wolfe through his transition from Keselowski to Logano for 2020, but not before winning 20 races with the No. 2 group during a six-year span.
“Honestly, Brad was incredible to work with,” Hassler said. “All the guys are different for sure, but he’s certainly super involved in all the details — maybe sometimes for the good, sometimes not. But it was cool to see his kind of level of devotion. Certainly, one of the things that stands out most about working with him was just, anytime you could you could manage to kind of get through a race. You’re in the top five with like 15 to go, you could just tell he had another gear and it was like he smelled blood in the water and was able to kind of find that that little bit to go and get a lot of wins.”
After Hassler’s two-race tryout in 2021, he finished out the year with the No. 21 team on an interim basis after a midseason switch – a stint that gave him more crew-chief reps as he inched toward a full-time role with the No. 12 bunch. As he prepared, he found a like-minded driver in Blaney, whose character traits balanced well with his own in an easy chemistry.
“Our personalities are very similar, very laid-back, I think,” Hassler said. “Once the race weekend starts, we kind of switch to being a lot more complementary than similar with him being pretty feisty at times when he has the helmet on. I feel like I tend to balance that out and hopefully bring it back a bit more mellow in the race.”
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The first year of Blaney’s pairing with Hassler produced an All-Star Race victory, but nothing in the points-paying win column. Consistency carried the No. 12 team and kept it in the upper reaches of the Cup Series standings, and Blaney was the only winless driver to qualify for the postseason based on points.
A breakthrough win for Hassler and the end to a 59-race skid for Blaney came in one of this season’s most prestigious races. Blaney led a convincing 163 of 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, converting in what Hassler called “a big relief.”
“I think we both looked back, though, and we could pick seven or eight races in 2022 where if one thing goes a little bit differently, we have that opportunity to win,” Hassler said, “and I think as he’s talked a lot about, he made two mistakes in the playoffs in 2022 that kept us out of the round of four. Take those mistakes out, I think we’re racing Joey for the championship a year ago. So we knew that all the potential was there.
“We certainly started the year lacking a bit of speed to what we were used to in 2022, so it definitely didn’t come easy. But we kept working at it. Honestly, from the 600 on, we knew that if we put all the right pieces together, we’re going to be able to contend. So it just took us some time to figure out what those pieces needed to be.”
Acing those details reached its peak as the team navigated a postseason path that seemed to improve as it went along. The 38-year-old crew chief noted how the No. 12 team showed speed from the outset of practice most weeks, a development that instilled confidence in its driver. The pit crew also benefited after a season of ups and downs in 2022, buying into the “family team aspect” thought process that Hassler promoted.
“I’d be lying if I could tell you that it was one specific thing,” Hassler said.
That force was nearly unstoppable as the season drew to a close. Blaney wrangled wins at Talladega and Martinsville that meant advancement through the elimination stages and momentum for the team’s eventual coronation as the curtain closed at Phoenix Raceway.
Hassler celebrated with his driver and his crew into the desert night after the season finale, nearly two and a half years after the taproom discussion of what their partnership might look like. A championship is now part of that fulfilled vision, even if it might not seem like reality for everyone.
“If I’m being really honest, still just trying to soak it in,” Hassler expressed. “It’s hard enough, I feel like, at least for me personally when the season ends to get out of your rhythm of pushing and pushing. You have a pattern of how things happen each and every week, and you get to where you have weekends off. I always tell people I feel like I’m crawling out of the cave or something in the offseason, seeing the light and then just trying to understand how to live and act in the real world. So combine that with doing something that you always dreamed of doing has been a little bit overwhelming.
“I’d say the only things that have kind of made it sink in so far, we had a lunch at the shop where they showed a video and you watch it and you’re like ‘OK, it really did happen.’ I think the banquet for sure is going to be another, a really good sink-in moment.”