Charlotte, N.C. — Joe Gibbs Racing capped 2015 with its first Sprint Cup championship in a decade. Then the team made some major changes to one of the strongest organizations in NASCAR.
Kyle Busch won his first Cup title, the first for manufacturer Toyota and the first for JGR since Tony Stewart’s 2005 crown. Behind the scenes, though, personnel changes were being made even though JGR put all four of its drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Dave Rogers was moved from crew chief for Denny Hamlin to crew chief for Carl Edwards, while Mike Wheeler was promoted from the Xfinity Series to replace Rogers. Busch and Matt Kenseth’s teams were left intact.
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.
“I was pretty happy with Dave Rogers, to be honest with you, but ultimately we’ve had a plan for many, many years to get me and Wheels together,” Hamlin said Tuesday. “That started with him moving to the Xfinity Series. So we knew when he moved there, he was eventually going to make it back to the Cup Series and when he was going to move up, I needed to make myself available for him.
“He can’t move up and I loan him to Carl for a year and then take him back. It just doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to make the move the way we did it, and I think it works out best for everyone. Everyone got who they want right now.”
JGR drivers combined to win 15 of 36 races last season and went into the Chase as the heavy favorites to win the title. Only Busch and Edwards advanced to the third round of the playoffs, though, and Busch moved on to the championship race.
Almost immediately after his victory there were rumblings that changes were coming at JGR.
The jockeying of jobs led to the departure of Darian Grubb, who had come narrowly close to winning the championship with Hamlin in 2014 and then led Edwards to a pair of wins in their only season together. Once he’d been replaced as crew chief, Grubb left for the role of vehicle production director at Hendrick Motorsports.
Grubb has indicated he was told when the Chase began that he would be replaced — a similar scenario to 2011 when Stewart told him he wouldn’t be back as crew chief, though the two still went on to win the championship.
Edwards praised Grubb for being professional through the end of the season.
“Absolutely nothing went wrong. When we looked at everything toward the end of the season, I felt like two things: No. 1, I’m really proud of how Darian and I finished the season. I thought we performed very well,” Edwards said. “We step back and look at it, it just seemed Dave was a natural fit for me, and the way everything shook out with all the changes, all the crew chiefs and drivers, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Although he’s yet to work with Rogers, a recent snowmobile trip to Vermont as a team building exercise has given Edwards hope that he’s got the right crew chief.
“Dave really believes in getting the most out of each person and understanding each person and the competitiveness and what drives them,” Edwards said. “He wants to win this championship, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to put everyone on the same page.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, enters the year with his third crew chief in three seasons but zero concerns.
“There’s no doubt this is the last crew chief I’m working with for the rest of my career,” Hamlin said of Wheeler. “We’ve worked together for 12 years and I don’t see why in the next 12 years that would change.”