Mike Ford, the crew chief who led Denny Hamlin to the brink of a Sprint Cup championship one year ago, is no longer in that position.
Joe Gibbs Racing announced Tuesday that Ford has been released as Hamlin's crew chief, capping a fall from a near championship-winning effort in 2010 to a 2011 campaign where the No. 11 team needed a wild card entry just to make the Chase. Ford and Hamlin had been a team since the driver first moved up to NASCAR's Cup Series on a limited basis in 2005, and together they won 17 races and qualified for the postseason every year since 2006.
The Associated Press was first to report the story. "I'm kind of relieved," Ford told the wire service. "It had been dragging on for so long, I'm actually relieved there's finally a resolution."
"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," said team owner Joe Gibbs 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."
While there was no official word as to who would be Ford's successor, all indications pointed toward JGR reaching out to Darian Grubb -- the crew chief who was recently fired from Tony Stewart's No. 14 team, despite winning the Sprint Cup title. Grubb does have a standing offer from Hendrick Motorsports, where he worked prior to joining Stewart-Haas Racing, although that is for an engineering position and not a crew chief's job.
In their six years together, Hamlin and Ford had a successful, but sometimes turbulent, coexistence. When the wins came, they did so in bunches, as evidenced by the 12 races they won together in the 2009 and '10 seasons. But the No. 11 team was also often plagued by mechanical issues and pit stop problems, and lost the 2010 championship in part because it didn't save fuel in that season's penultimate event at Phoenix. Rather than burying the competition, that misstep allowed Jimmie Johnson to pull within 15 points and overtake Hamlin for his fifth title the next week.
Ford has worked as a crew chief on NASCAR's premier circuit for 12 seasons, dating back to the 2000 campaign with Bill Elliott. He has also worked with past series champions Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte, as well as former Gibbs drivers Jason Leffler and J.J. Yeley. Ford righted the Gibbs No. 11 team after a tumultuous beginning with Leffler, bringing stability to the program and eventually finding success with Hamlin. Ford has won 21 total races during his dozen years as a crew chief on the Cup Series.