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Could Sprint Unlimited win be start of something special for Hamlin, new crew chief?


during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 13, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Patrick Smith

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The Sprint Unlimited introduced NASCAR fans to Denny Hamlin in 2006. Saturday night, he introduced his new crew chief in victory lane.

While Hamlin began running Sprint Cup races late in 2005, to many fans he was just another Virginia driver until winning this non-points event at Daytona International Speedway to open the 2006 season. Hamlin went on to finish third in the points that season and seemed poised to capture a championship.

As the 2016 season begins, Hamlin still seeks that first Cup crown.

“I thought I would have had one within the first three years of my Cup career,’’ Hamlin said last month. “It’s always been right there in front of me.”

Yet misfortune and mistakes have kept him from winning a title, leaving him with a heartbreaking runner-up finish in 2010 and another third-place result in 2014.

Hamlin thinks he might have the right combination now with new crew chief Mike Wheeler, a long-time engineer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Wheeler, though, is more than a crew chief. He’s a confidant and friend to Hamlin, who always wanted to work with Wheeler in Cup after doing so in the Xfinity Series. With Wheeler ready to be a Cup crew chief, Hamlin knew the time was right to be paired with him after having worked with Mike Ford, Darian Grubb and Dave Rogers through the years.

“This is my last crew chief,’’ Hamlin said last month. “There’s no doubt this is the one I’m going to be working with for the rest of my career.’’

Wheeler was on vacation with his wife when Hamlin made those comments.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I saw those comments,’’ Wheeler said. “Did it surprise me? No, it’s very cool. But we’ve grown up together. We’ve been through some battles together. We’ve had long talks and had a lot of good times together, and I think one thing we can say is all the time you just keep working together, and it’s something that you just can’t make.

“It either happens or it doesn’t happen, and I’ve known for years that we just clicked and we can talk and I can pass ideas by him, and whether it sticks or not, he’d always listen. He’d always give me the feedback.’’

As Wheeler talked, Hamlin seated beside him after their win Saturday night, nodded.

“He’s been through crew chief changes,’’ Wheeler said of Hamlin. “They’re hard. They’re hard with teams. They’re hard for people. But I think in the long run, I know we can work together for the long haul and be successful.’’

They got off to a good start Saturday night.

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