CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mike Ford was let go Tuesday as crew chief for Denny Hamlin after a disappointing season in which the duo failed to contend for the championship.
"I'm kind of relieved," Ford told The Associated Press. "It had been dragging on for so long, I'm actually relieved there's finally a resolution."
Ford's future with the team had been subject to speculation most of the season, largely because of how far Hamlin's performance had dropped from 2010, when he nearly dethroned Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title.
Even though Hamlin repeatedly insisted there was no imminent crew chief change, the speculation never ceased and actually intensified once the season ended. Tony Stewart followed through in firing Darian Grubb a week after Grubb led him to the championship, and Grubb's sudden availability has teams scurrying to sign him.
JGR is at the top of the list, and team owner Joe Gibbs met with Grubb last week in Las Vegas, the day after the season-ending awards ceremony. Grubb also has toured the JGR facility.
Ford said JGR officials made no mention of Grubb in telling Ford he was out late Tuesday and the team said it had no immediate announcement about a replacement.
"Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing appreciates what Mike has done for our organization over the past six seasons as crew chief with our No. 11 team," Gibbs said in a statement. "We've decided it was best to make a change with the team now to allow Mike the opportunity to pursue other opportunities."
Ford had been with Hamlin since Hamlin's 2006 rookie season, and guided Hamlin to 17 victories and a spot in the Chase for the championship in all six seasons.
Hamlin battled Johnson down to the wire in the 2010 season finale, and even held the points lead heading into the race at Homestead. But Hamlin struggled the entire weekend, finished 14th, and lost the title by 39 points to Johnson.
He never recovered, either.
Hamlin was off most of this season, and won just one race. He had to claw to make his way into the Chase, but never contended and finished ninth in the standings. He also ended the year with career lows in top-fives (five) and top-10s (14) — but the numbers were skewed by a rash of engine failures and other mechanical issues at JGR.
Hamlin supported Ford as late as last week, when he was asked about Grubb's availability last week in Las Vegas.
"It's hard to say. Right now, Mike Ford is my crew chief and we've had a lot of success together," Hamlin said. "He's been the guy who has been the rock on our race team and kept our group of guys together.
"Obviously, we need to improve our performance and we're willing to do whatever it takes to do that. But right now, Mike Ford is still my crew chief."
It's late in the offseason for JGR to make the move and the open crew chief jobs are limited at this point.
Penske Racing has yet to hire a replacement for Steve Addington, who quit as Kurt Busch's crew chief to work for Stewart next season. Stewart still needs to hire a crew chief for Danica Patrick, and a competition director.
It's long been assumed Stewart is eyeing Greg Zipadelli, his former crew chief at JGR, for the competition director position. Addington also worked with Stewart at JGR, and, should Ford be able to land there with Patrick, the Stewart-Haas Racing team could look very much like JGR of old.