Denny Hamlin, the winningest active Cup driver without a series championship, begins his title drive without crew chief Mike Wheeler this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Wheeler is completing a two-race suspension after Hamlin’s winning Southern 500 car failed inspection afterward. Wheeler’s suspension means he can’t be in the garage and on pit road. He can remain in communication with the team throughout the weekend.
Hamlin admits that Wheeler’s absence last weekend at Richmond impacted the team despite a fifth-place finish. Hamlin noted that the team was late in getting the car ready for both practices, costing him track time.
“We started 10 minutes late to both practices because our car wasn’t ready,’’ Hamlin said. “In between changes, we didn’t have the sense of urgency, getting out there, getting it done, getting back on the track, where (Wheeler) is usually pushing them to get it done. I think our track time was cut down.’’
Chris Gabehart served as Hamlin’s interim crew chief last weekend but his focus was on his job as crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity team. Gabehart’s main duty with Hamlin’s team was to be atop the pit box for any critical calls during the race. He let the team handle practice while he worked with driver Christopher Bell on the Xfinity side. Engineers Sam McAulay and Ryan Bowers led Hamlin’s team during practice.
Hamlin said he needs to take a more active role in leading the team this weekend.
“I think the responsibility I carry is I have to give information a little bit quicker to them because (Wheeler), I tell him what it’s doing, bam, he comes up with a change right away,’’ Hamlin said “I think they want to be more methodical so they don’t make mistakes. They have to enter it into a computer. Let’s change this. You have to just do things a little bit ‑‑ give them a little more advanced notice when things aren’t going well.”
With all the work that takes place Friday and Saturday in practice, Hamlin knows that will be critical to how well he runs Sunday. Don’t find the right setup and it makes the race more difficult. Find the right setup and Hamlin can put himself in position to win at Chicagoland for the second time since 2015.