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Hamlin has new crew for All-Star Challenge

JENNA FRYER • May 19, 2007 at 1:12 AM

CONCORD, N.C. - Denny Hamlin has a new crew heading into tonight's All-Star race, changes his team insists were long overdue.

The overhaul opened Hamlin to criticism about his role in the shakeup - he blamed the crew for costing him a win last week at Darlington Raceway, and many believed the conversation should have been done in private.

But crew chief Mike Ford said the second-year driver had every right to speak his mind.

"I thought he did a hell of a job and actually choked back from as much as he wanted to say," Ford said Friday. "This was something that had been building and building, and we'd had the closed-door meetings and it just kept happening again and again. Darlington was the final straw.

"Everybody applauded him for speaking up. Facts are facts, and he was right."

And the facts show that Hamlin's old crew was prone to mistakes when the stakes were high. The pattern dated to last season, but went unnoticed because Hamlin's rookie team flew under the radar for most of the year.

But Hamlin is a weekly contender this season - he could have won four races if not for various problems - so the errors have been huge.

He lost a chance to run for the win in Martinsville when the crew didn't tighten his wheels during a late pit stop, and also let a tire roll away. And after dominating Darlington, a dropped pair of lug nuts took him out of contention.

"It's been going on for a year, so finally it's gotten to a point where enough is enough," Hamlin said. "Look, we're now championship contenders week in week out. We're competitive for wins each week. So now we've got to change the few little things to put ourselves over the top.

"I think it's time to do that now, so when it comes Chase time and we need to perform at our absolute best, we'll be able to do that," the driver added.

The changes were made this week; three crew members were removed from the team and two were moved to different positions. Only two members kept their existing jobs.

Ford sent the new team to the Pit Crew Challenge on Wednesday night, and it finished sixth in its first outing together. Ford said the old crew finished last a year ago.

"Everybody saw what happened last week and wants to pin that on the changes that we made, but it was something we'd been working on for a while," Ford said. "It wasn't like Denny complained and we reacted, we had been talking about it, working on it."

Hamlin has been criticized for being so vocal about the crew issues, and many were surprised he didn't attend the Pit Crew Challenge to support the group. He said he had a commitment he couldn't break.

But everyone agreed there's a fine line in what issues should be publicized. "It's one of those things where you try to work together as a team as much as you can," Kevin Harvick said. "Sometimes you say something that you shouldn't. Sometimes you try to step up at the right situation. It's just experience. The more you experience, the better off you're going to be." Carl Edwards said Hamlin must have been justified.

"Speaking up usually has to follow some research," Edwards said. "I've been mad at the wrong person or upset at a situation for the wrong reason. You just have to be tough. I thought that was a big deal for (Denny) to do that.

"But Denny is a smart guy and he doesn't say a lot of things like that, so he must have just felt real strongly about it."

Ford believes Hamlin's rapid development lapped the crew, and its going to take adjustments to get everyone up to speed. "This is a new team and he's still just a second year driver - nobody expected him to be where he is," Ford said. "The cars are good, the driver is good and it puts that much more pressure on the pit crew to be perfect. "Some guys can handle it and some guys don't. Everything about a race team depends on performance and everything was taken a step up. It put the pressure on the pit crew guys and they couldn't step up."

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