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Joe Gibbs Racing announces 2019 crew chief realignment

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On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced a crew chief realignment for the 2019 season for four of its teams.

Chris Gabehart will take over for Mike Wheeler as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief in the Cup Series. Wheeler and Hamlin parted ways following the season finale at Homestead. Gabehart spent the last three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief for JGR earning a total of nine wins during that time. Last year, he was the crew chief for the Xfinity No. 19 team of Brandon Jones.

Eric Phillips will also move from the Xfinity series to Cup as the car chief for Hamlin. He earned eight wins during three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief on the No. 18.

Jeff Meendering will fill the crew chief spot on the Xfinity No. 19 vacated by Gabehart and will be paired with Jones.

Meendering returns to JGR after two years with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 00 car.

Ben Beshore moves from his current role as engineer on Kyle Busch‘s car to fill the role of crew chief on the Xfinity No. 18. This team typically fields multiple drivers during the season.

“With such a short offseason it’s important to start work toward the 2019 season immediately and we are proud with the teams we have assembled now, both in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in the Xfinity Series,” said owner Joe Gibbs in a press release. “With Chris Gabehart joining Adam Stevens, Chris Gayle, and Cole Pearn on the Cup side we believe we have the right leaders in place to benefit our entire organization.”

Former driver Mark McFarland will become team manager and crew chief for JGR’s K&N Pro series and ARCA car. In 31 starts in the Xfinity series, McFarland scored one top 10 at Talladega in 2006 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“In addition, we take a tremendous amount of pride in our accomplishments in the Xfinity Series and are excited to have Jeff Meendering and Ben Beshore join Jason Ratcliff to lead our efforts there, as well as bolster our developmental program in ARCA with the addition of Mark McFarland,” Gibbs said.

Silly Season sees third rookie join Cup ranks in 2019

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Front Row Motorsports’ announcement that it will expand to three cars and add Matt Tifft increases the rookie field for the 2019 Cup season.

Tifft will be in a Cup rookie class with Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric. That’s already larger than last season’s rookie class, which featured only William Byron and Bubba Wallace (Byron won rookie of the year honors).

Tifft’s signing is just one of many changes that will take place for the 2019 season.

Here’s a look at where things stand in Silly Season:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22)

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing from the defunct Furniture Row Racing team (announcement made Nov. 7)

No. 31: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing for 2019. (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 36: Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car for the 2019 season (announcement made Nov. 27)

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota beginning next year (announcement made Oct. 10)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: Jamie McMurray will not drive this car next season. He has yet to decide if he will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then move to a management position with the team. He said Nov. 16 he had yet to decide if to do that or some other racing.

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto announced Sept. 7 that he would not return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch‘s one-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing ended after the season. Reports have him headed to the No. 1 car in 2019. 

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: He told NBC Sports on Nov. 17 that he didn’t have any races for 2019 lined up at the time.

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: The 2004 Cup champion has yet to announce his 2019 plans.

Jamie McMurray: Has yet to announce what he’ll do in 2019 but it won’t be a full-time ride in the No. 1 car at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Daniel Suarez: With Martin Truex Jr. taking over the No. 19 in 2019, Suarez is looking for a ride. He said Sept. 21 that “we’re talking to a lot of people.” Suarez is the favorite for the No. 41 ride.

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 3: Danny Stockman replaces Justin Alexander as Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2019 (move confirmed Nov. 26)

No. 11: Mike Wheeler will not return as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 16)

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron’s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering replaces Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 95: Mike Wheeler joins the team and replaces Jon Leonard, who moved back to Richard Childress Racing to be an engineer on Austin Dillon’s team.

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports for 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 25).

No. 42: Chip Ganassi Racing signs Ross Chastain to drive the No. 42 full-time for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 9).

No. 98: Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to drive the team’s second Xfinity car and be a teammate to Cole Custer (announcement made Nov. 27).

RCR: Tyler Reddick moves from JR Motorsports to RCR for the 2019 season. Reddick’s car number, sponsor and crew chief will be announced later. (announcement made Oct. 31).

Mike Wheeler joins Leavine Family Racing as crew chief on No. 95

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Mike Wheeler has joined Leavine Family Racing to crew chief Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Chevrolet next season, the team announced Tuesday.

Wheeler joins the single-car team after three full-time seasons and 112 total starts as crew chief for Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.

DiBenedetto joins LFR after two seasons with Go Fas Racing.

Wheeler earned five wins with Hamlin from 2016-17. But they went winless in 2018, the first time in Hamlin’s full-time Cup career he did not earn at least one victory.

LFR adds a crew chief with plenty of experience working on a Toyota as it transitions to the manufacturer from Chevrolet.

“We’re thrilled to have Mike joining our organization because he’s had a successful career so far in the crew chief role,” said LFR General Manager Jeremy Lange in a press release.  “With our transition over to Toyota this coming season, Mike brings with him a wealth of knowledge in regard to how to build competitive Toyota Camrys, and we’re looking forward to his leadership within LFR.”

Wheeler first joined JGR as an engineer in the Xfinity series before he was promoted to an engineering position in the Cup series when JGR formed the No. 11 team in 2005.  In 2014, Wheeler served as the interim crew chief on Hamlin’s Cup entry for six races before being promoted to crew chief on the No. 20 Xfinity entry in 2015.

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Denny Hamlin’s team passes over No. 1 pit stall to Kyle Busch’s team

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin’s team did not choose the No. 1 pit stall for Sunday’s race, allowing Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to have the best pit stall as Busch races for a Cup championship.

Mike Wheeler, Hamlin’s crew chief, had first choice of pit stalls Saturday after Hamlin won the pole Friday night. The pole winner typically picks the No. 1 pit stall, closest to pit exit, because it is the best stall at any track.  

But Hamlin is not competing for a championship, having been eliminated earlier in the playoffs. Busch qualified second, giving his team the second pick of pit stalls.

MORE: Denny Hamlin reacts to giving up No. 1 pit stall to Kyle Busch 

This move could help Busch win the race and his second championship, just as it could impact Hamlin’s chances of winning the race.

Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, makes his pit stall pick, as Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, looks on. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Car owner Joe Gibbs said he discussed the decision with the team personnel.

“We feel like for us the best thing … at this point would be to have Denny do everything he could to try to win the race,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, we’ve got Daniel (Suarez) and Erik (Jones), same for them. We’re going to do everything we can to win the race there, but we also, for us, have a championship on the line and what we would love to do is win that championship. That’s how the decision was made for us.

“I think if there is any criticism, it goes to me.”

Hamlin’s team took pit stall No. 4, which has an opening in front of it.

“Obviously it’s great to have the number one pit stall for the race and I appreciate the teamwork by the guys on the 11,” Kyle Busch said after Saturday’s final Cup practice. “(Gibbs) and everyone at JGR are focused on doing what they can to bring a championship for the company.”

The pit stalls at Homestead-Miami Speedway are 30-feet, 8-inches long. The No. 1 pit stall is about 40 feet from where the NASCAR camera is located that determines the position off pit road. That allows the car in the No. 1 pit stall to fire out of its box and surge ahead of those traveling down pit road.

That can make the difference between being the leader and having lane choice on a restart. That could be a key factor in who wins the race and the championship.

The decision by Hamlin’s team does not violate Section 7.5 of the Cup Rulebook – the so-called 100 percent rule. That rule states: “NASCAR requires its Competitor(s) to race at 100% of their ability with the goal of achieving their best possible finishing position in the Event.”

The key is “race.” The rule does not regulate selection of pit stalls.

This isn’t the first time Joe Gibbs Racing has done something with a view toward the championship.

Three of the four Gibbs cars ran at the back of the Talladega playoff race in 2016 — when that race was a cutoff race in the second round — instead of running toward the front and risk being involved in an accident that could have eliminated Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Busch from title contention. With that race no longer a cutoff event, that’s not an issue.

Should Denny Hamlin’s team take No. 1 pit stall or leave it for Kyle Busch?

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning effort Friday night made for an emotional moment in his final Cup race with close friend Mike Wheeler as his crew chief.

Hamlin’s pole also created a quandary.

With the pole, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team has the first pick of pit stalls. Any other race, it’s an easy call: The team takes the No. 1 pit stall at the exit of pit road.

MORE: Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief in 2019

But things are complicated because Hamlin is not in the title race and teammate Kyle Busch, who qualified second and whose team has second pick of pit stalls, is racing for a championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

If Hamlin’s team takes a different pit stall, it would allow Busch to have the No. 1 stall, which is viewed as the best on pit road. That could be the difference in having the lead off pit road and could impact who wins the championship.

So, what will Wheeler do when crew chiefs make their pit stall selection Saturday morning?

“We’re paid to win races for JGR and (sponsor) FedEx,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely on my mind and my heart to be aware of that for Denny and our team. Obviously, we want to win a championship for JGR, too. That’s one of the biggest goals, a bigger goal this weekend. There’s some chatter going on about that.”

In one sense, it could be an easy call — let Busch have the No. 1 pit stall. The focus in any organization at this point is on the team racing for a championship. So why not give that team that advantage?

On the other hand, Hamlin is winless this year and could have one of his best chances to score a victory and extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to 13. He won this race in 2013 to keep that streak alive. 

“I think everything is earned,” Hamlin said. “Nothing is given. With us having the No. 1 pit stall, nobody else — none of the other competitors will have it. I don’t know. It’s a discussion. I mean, certainly I would think that (Wheeler), with the pressure always to win, you’ve got to do everything you can to win. We’ll have that discussion.”

The pit stalls at Homestead-Miami Speedway are 30-feet, 8-inches long. The camera at the end of pit road is about 40 feet from the No. 1 pit stall. That’s closer than some other tracks. That means a driver in that stall can fire out of the pit stall and surge ahead of those coming down pit road.

Last year, Hamlin’s team faced a similar issue but it was an easier call. Hamlin, who was not in the title race, won the pole. Martin Truex Jr., a title contender, qualified second last year. Truex’s team — which has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing — asked if Hamlin’s team could take another pit stall so Truex could have the No. 1 stall. Hamlin’s team declined.