Monday, March 30, 2015

Right Sides Only: Martinsville Winning Crew Chief, Dave Rogers

Sometimes change is good. Even if you aren't stuck in a rut, it's nice to mix it up a bit. During the off-season, the powers-that-be turned on the proverbial blender at Joe Gibbs Racing. So far, the new pairing of driver Denny Hamlin with crew chief Dave Rogers is working well. The pair held off a charging Brad Keselowski to take home the coveted grandfather clock from the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

One of the best parts about switching up the teams is the knowledge a new combination of drivers and crew chiefs bring to the table. In determining Hamlin's race set up, Rogers was able to review his Martinsville notebook from his work with Kyle Busch as well as Darian Grubbs's notebook from his work with Hamlin.

"You know, Kyle and the 18, my engineering group, we went one way last year, and Denny and Darian and their group went a different way last year. So we had two good notebooks to go from. Qualifying was more along the lines of some stuff that we did last year. We sat on the pole last year in the spring race, so we tried to sprinkle some of that in, and we just didn't do it right. We messed it up.
Dave Rogers (left) chats with Hamlin in the garage at Atlanta, March 2015.
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
        
"So I looked at Darian's notebook and said, 'Well, what are the things that you guys did last year that worked for Denny, because Denny and Kyle -- they're both great short-track drivers, but they're different.' And you're right, it's a different rules package. We took both notebooks, and my engineering staff, Chris Gabehart and Kenny Oates, we worked -- it was a long night Friday night. We slept very fast Friday night. We put together a pretty good setup, but it's completely different than anything that we've ever raced here before." 

Another change that all 43 teams faced this weekend was one fewer set of tires than last year. How did that impact the No. 11 team?

"You don't want to run out of tires, but then on the other hand there's times that in the XFINITY Series I've gotten myself in trouble because I'd be the only car, and several crew chiefs have, you're the only car with an extra set. So now that last caution comes out that Denny talked about with five to go, you've got a set of tires laying, but you can't use them because there's 16 cars in front of you that don't have the tires, and you can't pass them. It's a really complex element.
            
"I think Goodyear did a good job of bringing a tire this week with the weather the way it is, the track not taking rubber, the tire performed really well, and it wasn't as big of a deal as I thought it was going to be. If it got really hot and slick, these drivers would probably be cussing out the crew chiefs a little bit more. It would be tough to do this on a hot, slick track with that number of tires."

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs
Both Rogers and Hamlin would be the first to admit that the pit crew wasn't performing at 100 percent.  
 
"Yeah, today was a perfect storm on pit road to be honest with you. First of all, we have one of our pit crew members is injured. He's out. Last year the 11 pit crew was the fastest on pit road every week. We had a guy step in. He's doing a great job, but you just can't put six guys together and expect them to be the best. It takes time to gel. There may be some rust in the pit crew there. Our rear tire changer has got the flu. He had three bags of IV before the race, half hour before the race he's getting bags of IV.
             
"I tried a really aggressive setup on Friday. I told Denny, one of the luxuries of having him drive our race car is I'm not scared. We'll try anything because I think he can carry this team.
             
"I put us in a box. I made some bad calls, and Denny did the best he could with it but it was 16th, so now when you go to pick pits there's not a whole lot of good options. We tried 43, it's one of those things, hey, let's try it, if it works out we'll try it in the fall. It didn't work out. And then the one stop we were leading the race, we just got to the lead and usually you pick up the pace car, and you roll around a lap and then they open pit road, but for whatever reason, race control opened pit road quicker than I expected anyway, and next thing you know, we're in our pit box.
             
"We had a lot of things going against us, but on the other hand, I thought Denny showed great leadership characteristics. I mean, it's go to the be extremely frustrating to drive the race car and have that going on. He didn't yell, he didn't scream, he wasn't derogatory, he just said, 'Hey, guys, we've got to pick it up.I thought he was a leader. He told us what he thought, and then he drove the wheels off the car and showed us that he wasn't going to lay down on us.
            
"It was a perfect storm for a bad day on pit road, but at the end, everybody picked it up, and we came out with a victory. We've got some room for improvement and a Martinsville clock, so a good day."

With penalty for the uncontrolled tire came frustration, so Rogers thought he'd try calming his driver down by cracking a joke by telling Hamlin that the tower told him to "put on a show" (his explanation for Hamlin's penalty, which was a trip to the rear of the field). 

Credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs
"I was probably as frustrated as Denny. It's terrible, I think we had the fastest race car for a good portion of the weekend at California, and we just didn't execute as a team. It kind of spiraled out of control, and now we're talking about not running as good as we should be. So here you have a -- we knew leaving yesterday we had one of the top-three cars. We know we've got one of the top-three drivers. You just take the lead, and you start to see it spiral out of control again. It's like, 'Wow, this is frustrating. This is two weeks in a row.'
             
"So I knew inside I was frustrated. I knew he had to be even more frustrated. So I just tried to lighten it up a little bit and put him at ease, get him to relax. I knew he had a tough task ahead of him to come up through the field and keep the fenders on it and not burn it up, not burn the tires off it. So I was trying to do my best to put him at ease the best I could, and that's what came to mind. I didn't think about it; I just said it."
Hamlin responded, "Yeah, I just told him, fine, I will, but stop making me do this. It's not very fun," but Rogers didn't hear him.
 
"I had the crew chief radio on. I didn't hear the snip part," Rogers said. 

Hamlin, without missing a beat, said, "He doesn't get my jokes."
 
Joking aside, any race day that ends in a victory is a good day since it virtually guarantees that team a slot in the Chase. Getting a win early in the season allows a team to try a few things in the stretch of races that follow the Easter break.

"Yeah, it's a big deal. We get the monkey off our back early, build some confidence with this race team.  It's a new race, got a lot of new faces on the team, guys from the Truck Series, guys from the XFINITY Series, a bunch of new faces, and Denny and I are rekindling our relationship, so a lot of learning to do, and a win leading into an off weekend where we can talk about it, enjoy it, dissect what we did good [sic], what we did bad and get better, it's just a great opportunity for this race team right now, and I'm really excited about it."

Hamlin's fans are excited, too, since the win was the team's first since May 2014 in Talladega. This new pairing may just be the change that both driver and crew chief needed.

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