DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Here we go again. Denny Hamlin has a new crew chief.
The man calling the shots for Hamlin on stops, tires, and fuel has as much job stability on the No. 11 these days as a New York Yankees manager under George Steinbrenner.
Mike Ford, see ya.
Darian Grubb, yer out.
Dave Rogers, thanks for stopping by.
Crew chiefs have come and gone for Hamlin as Joe Gibbs Racing tries to find the elixir that will bring the talented driver his first NASCAR championship.
Up next, Mike Wheeler, a longtime JRG employee and Hamlin's third straight new crew chief. Hamlin can only hope the third time brings championship charm starting Sunday at the Daytona 500. The duo opened eyes at Speedweeks with a victory in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
Hamlin said the move was precipitated by a long-term plan to get Wheeler crew chief experience and then reunite him with the No. 11 team. Wheeler was an engineer for Hamlin's team for 10 years before he went to the Xfinity Series last year to crew chief.
"He's been through crew chief changes," Wheeler said. "They're hard, they're hard for people."
But a new crew chief is hardly unique atop the pit box season. Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson are among a the drivers who found new men to direct everything from car setups to race strategy to making all the right calls on raceday.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are the championship standard, winning six titles over 14 seasons together at Hendrick Motorsports. Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have one championship over their five-year pairing.
The rest? Only three other combos have lasted at least three seasons.
The crew chief is the head coach, the manager, the one who takes the fall for busted seasons and fractured relationships. Hamlin and Ford parted after seven seasons without a title. Grubb, once fired the season he led Tony Stewart to a championship, was moved to JGR driver Carl Edwards last year. Rogers led Hamlin to two wins in their lone season before he was moved to champion Kyle Busch's box for 2016.
The pressure is immediate for Wheeler — win Gibbs his first Daytona 500 in 23 years.
"We had such a long drought of not winning a championship," Hamlin said. "That pressure was starting to build and the frustration probably from Joe Gibbs Racing is starting to get felt from everyone, so we got that done and now it's just like, 'Okay, guys, let's win the 500.'"
Hamlin's not the only driver hoping a new crew chief can fuel a championship run:
— Tony Stewart/Mike Bugarewicz. Stewart-Haas Racing. Already the most intriguing pairing, the relationship took a hit when Stewart was injured riding an ATV. Brian Vickers is the interim driver for the Daytona 500. "I sent (Stewart) a text message the other night to keep me in the loop on anything I need to be thinking about for the upcoming races," Bugarewicz said.
— Danica Patrick/Bill Scott. Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick is winless with no top-fives in 118 career Cup races. "He's just a really normal, normal guy," Patrick said. "I think that's important when it comes to a team, that everyone can talk to him, communicate, and feel like they cannot only say what they want, but have a good time, as well."
— Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston. Chip Ganassi Racing. Johnston was Stewart's crew chief the last two seasons, finishing 25th and 28th, respectively.
— Carl Edwards/Dave Rogers. Joe Gibbs Racing. Like Hamlin, Edwards has won plenty of big races, but is still searching for his first Cup championship.
— Greg Biffle/Brian Pattie. Roush Fenway Racing. Biffle is coming off consecutive winless seasons for the first time in his career. "We needed a change," Biffle said.
— Trevor Bayne/Matt Puccia. Roush Fenway Racing. Can the duo help 2011 Daytona 500 champ Bayne pull off another shocker?
— AJ Allmendinger/Randall Burnett. JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger hoped the switch can return him to 2014 form when he won a race and made the Chase.