The speeding penalties Denny Hamlin continues to rack up are not as they appear on paper, according to crew chief Mike Wheeler.
“The ones this year have actually been three separate entities of what happened,” Wheeler said. “I would blame the first one on him just being aggressive on rolling his lights and pit road speed – hit a bump and it kind of jumbled the engine a little bit, and was too fast. One of them I would blame on the crew and myself as much as anything else, just being over-aggressive. Denny hit his marks, and we were too aggressive on lights.
“I would tell you the weather change at Texas, it was cold when we practiced it, and then the next day it got hot and it changed just enough where we got caught. We learned lessons. And Talladega, he was racing on entry for the lead, and he knew that if he beat Joey Logano off pit road it would have been easier to win that race. So when he was coming in second and trying to get in there first, he got caught.”
Hamlin is one of the most publicized drivers when it comes to pit road woes. But he would be quick to point out that he does not lead the series in the category.
What hurts Hamlin and the No. 11 team is how much harder they seem to have to work to earn a finish. Most of Hamlin’s self-inflicted wounds occur under green flag conditions, which can easily result in in losing a lap. Under caution, Hamlin simply moves to the rear of the field.
While Wheeler didn’t become Hamlin’s crew chief until 2016, he’s been with the team for many years. Wheeler said he evaluates every penalty he’s “been a part of.” And over time, how Hamlin and the team have treated pit road has changed.
“Honestly, in the beginning of his career we played the game as far as maximizing pit road speed,” Wheeler said. “Denny was one of the first to realize they gave us a 5mph buffer. I was an engineer and he came to me and goes, ‘You now they give me a 5mph buffer, can you use up part of that?’ and the crew chief at the time was like, “no, we’re not playing that game”.
“And he was like, well just tell me what the number is and I’ll try it. I remember Texas 2006, it was his first top five [there]. We won the pit crew of the race award that week because we rolled four miles per hour faster on pit road than anybody, and we’ve been playing that game since. So, he’s gotten a lot of speeding penalties, but we’ve had the fruits of that labor.”
In 2016, the game changed again. This time, Hamlin went from working the buffer to pushing over it.
“In ’16 we played the game of, they weren’t giving us pit road speed so anytime we could we would push it to see where we were in that race, to get it live and we would get yelled at for it,” Wheeler said. “We won the Daytona 500 [to lock into the playoffs], so we were up to for playing and then we got like, 10 or 12 that year, but there was four at Talladega one race because we trying to figure out how fast we could go. We were in the back, and he just kept pushing it and pushing it until they yelled at us. We got four that one race, and it looks bad on paper.
“The recent ones, yeah they hurt, and after this last group at Talladega everybody advertised how bad we were and how bad Denny is. And we looked back at last year and was like, actually, Denny is one of the better ones of the group last year. Two of his teammates had more speeding penalties, and no one remembers that. Everyone remembers him being in the lead or going for the lead or whatever else and getting a speeding penalty and suffering the consequences.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs recently sat Hamlin down to discuss pit road. Hamlin knows his repeated problems have hurt him for stage points and other times, overall finish. The point of the talk was for Gibbs to calm Hamlin down, calm the team down and express being cautious. If a third-place finish is in sight, take third and don’t try to push for the win.
“Richmond, he was averagely conservative on pit road and we got beat out of the pits by Kyle [Busch], and it was one of those things if we came out first, we would have the preferred lane and probably would have won the race,” said Wheeler. “If we won the race, probably wouldn’t be taking about pit road speeding penalties right now. The following week was Talladega and that’s where he got caught again. I don’t say damned if you do, damned if you don’t but you got to optimize everything you can to win races and unfortunately we’ve had our bad share of speeding penalties.”
Hamlin admitted it’s all about pushing the limit to get any edge you can, especially when passing seems harder now than ever before. The last few weeks he’s been clean on pit road and Hamlin said the focus has been on gaining on the racetrack.
“We’re focusing on getting our cars better and to drive correctly, so I can do what I need to do,” he said.