Denny Hamlin is hoping to find a positive from the massive NASCAR penalties levied on his Sprint Cup Series team this week.
Racing at Pocono Raceway is a good place to start.
Hamlin is a four-time winner at the track, which is a solid foundation to start the first of what could be six races without his crew chief, Darian Grubb, and car chief, Wesley Sherrill.
Both were suspended six races and placed on probation for the remainder of the season after NASCAR found issues with the rear firewall plates on Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota following last Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Grubb was fined $125,000, and Hamlin was docked 75 points.
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The team is appealing the penalties but elected to have Grubb and Sherrill begin their respective suspensions immediately.
“It’s a tough deal. It’s something that obviously affects our team, but there’s obviously other opportunities as well for us to go out here and get our stuff going,” Hamlin said.
“As an organization we were heading in the right direction so it kind of sucks because you lose a little bit of that momentum. We’re pretty confident that we’ll get through it and by Chase time we’ll be a contender.”
The penalty doesn’t affect Hamlin’s Chase eligibility. His win at Talladega, Ala., will get him in the 16-driver field so long as he remains in the Top 30 in points (he’s currently 21st).
Hamlin appeared to get the weekend off to a solid start. He was 13th fastest in Friday’s lone practice session and qualified 13th for Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400.
Preparations for this weekend’s race were made well before NASCAR announced its penalties this week, so any disruption will likely come from Hamlin’s ability to communicate with Grubb on race day.
In addition, engineer Mike Wheeler is serving as Hamlin’s interim crew chief while the team’s former car chief, Chris Gillin, is back at that position.
“I’m in pretty good hands. I’ve been with Mike Wheeler longer than I’ve been with anyone in the Cup series,” Hamlin said. “We worked together a lot and pretty confident in the job that he’s going to do, but on top of that, I get who was my car chief for 10 years, get him back to the race track.
“Even though it’s tough losing those guys, and it’s tough for them especially, I don’t think things will change at the race track too much.”
Opinions differ on how much the absence of a crew chief can affect a team, especially since Grubb can still work on cars back at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters in Huntersville.
Both Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have won races in recent seasons with interim crew chiefs but there is no way to replicated the driver-crew chief relationship over the radio on race day.
“You use stuff like this as motivation to go out there and prove that you can run fast no matter what and you can run well,” Hamlin said. “We were on a run there last really month and a half to two months that I feel like our cars were really starting to turn the corner.
“We’ve got some great race tracks ahead of us – a lot of them which we feel like we can win.”