Denny Hamlin said the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team is “weathering the storm” with performance and results now in order to be prepared when the playoffs start. At the same time, Hamlin is also dealing with three key team members working from afar after being suspended following the Coca-Cola 600, when ballast fell out of his car.
Thursday night, the depth of the team paid off. With an interim crew chief, car chief, and engineer, Hamlin finished second at Charlotte Motor Speedway after starting 29th.
Sam McAulay stepped in for Chris Gabehart, while Eric Phillips serves as car chief and Scott Eldridge mechanic. The suspensions are for four races and will go through the June 10 Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
“One advantage that we did have was we left Eric at the race shop to prepare the cars before the whole weight thing happened, and because we had depth, we had essentially two car chiefs on our team,” explained Hamlin after Thursday’s race. “Brandon [Griffeth] was our car chief the year before, in 2018, Eric came on in 2019, and Brandon never left. The team player he is, he stepped aside and let Eric take over the car chiefing role last year, but we had two car chiefs, so we left one at the race shop, and now we just switched them essentially when we had the suspension.
“Still a big penalty. It still cost us a lot — a chance to win, I can assure you of that. We had a much faster car here on Sunday than what we did today, and the results were still good. We’re definitely going to miss Chris, but also within our roster we’ve left engineers at home, so now if anything he’s able to be at the race shop with the engineers and coming up with decisions in not such a chaotic environment like a racetrack.”
Without practice or qualifying, Hamlin said the one day where teams only race makes things easier for his group. Hamlin believes it would hurt more if they had to make quick decisions during practice, but that is eliminated. There will not be practice or qualifying ahead of Cup Series races at least through June.
Hamlin needed all of the 208 laps of Thursday’s race to get to the front. Because of his poor finish in the Coke 600 by being multiple laps down as the teams repaired the car after the ballast fell out, Hamlin started at the rear. For the second Charlotte race, the line-up of the 20 was inverted while the second half of the field started where they finished in the first race.
At the Lap 20 competition caution, Hamlin was called for speeding on pit road, keeping him mired in the pack. Hamlin finished the first stage in the 21st position and was 12th at the end of the second stage. The pit stops at the end of the stage moved Hamlin into the top 10, and he began climbing from there.
“We had a good run,” said Hamlin. “Just we struggled a little bit on the short run. The pit crew did a phenomenal job the last couple stops — they picked us up three spots every time at least and 29th to second in half the distance of a normal race, that’s about all we could even ask for.”
Since NASCAR has returned, Hamlin has been riding a wave of momentum with three top-five finishes, including a win in the second Darlington race. The only blemish being the Coke 600. But as Hamlin noted, his team has done a good job of improving from one race to another at the same track, as he did in Charlotte, and that will be important as the season goes on.
“I like our chances,” he said. “I think even though we still may be off a little bit with our organization on speed, I think we’re still getting good finishes out of it, and we’re weathering the storm until we can get our stuff a little bit better.”