Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited was a nice start for the new team of driver Denny Hamlin and crew chief Michael Wheeler.
Hamlin won NASCAR’s non-points season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Sitting on top of his pit box was Wheeler, who spent last season as the crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota.
Wheeler has been with Hamlin before, however, serving as his team engineer and in other roles throughout Hamlin’s career. Wheeler is also Hamlin’s third crew chief in three years.
“We’ve grown up together,” said Wheeler. “We’ve been through some battles together. We’ve had long talks and had a lot of good times together. You just keep working together and it’s something that you just can’t make. It either happens or it doesn’t happen. I’ve known for years that we just click. We can talk and I can pass ideas by him. Whether it sticks or not, he’d always listen.”
Said Hamlin: “This is big for me and him.”
Saturday’s Unlimited – a 75-lap dash – lasted just long enough for Hamlin.
“It’s short enough for my attention span,” said Hamlin, who won the exhibition for a third time. “That’s all I can think of.”
The race resembled a demolition derby at times, with seven cautions chewing up 25 laps – one third of the race. NASCAR’s “overtime line” was put into use as the race ended after a green-white-checkered restart.
Hamlin said he is still not fully recovered from offseason knee surgery.
“The knee is good,” Hamlin said. “I’m about 75 percent. I’m not anywhere close to doing anything sports related for a while. In the car, I’m good.”
Hamlin now turns his attention to this Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race he has never won. Winning the Unlimited doesn’t necessarily proffer Hamlin any advantage for the 500 either: Dale Jarrett was the last driver to win both – in 2000.
▪ Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed over the weekend that they had secured fourth charters for their teams. SHR’s Kurt Busch and JGR’s Carl Edwards are now assured one of 36 spots in each race.
Rob Kauffman, former co-owner of defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, indicated last week that MWR’s two charters would be sold to SHR And JGR. Terms weren’t disclosed.
▪ Ken Griffey Jr., who was recently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, will be the Daytona 500’s honorary starter.