From chasing to racing: Former ASU defensive end Mills finds thrills as NASCAR jackman

Former Arizona State football player Kellen Mills (middle) hurries across Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota Camry during a pit stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He has made a successful transition to using his athleticism for NASCAR. (Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing)

PHOENIX – During Kellen Mills’ journey from college football to the construction industry, he made a pit stop that changed his life.

Following an impressive football career at Mesa Mountain View High School, where he was an all-state fullback, and Arizona State, where he played a pivotal role as a walk-on defensive end, he transitioned into a career of longevity and success in NASCAR thanks to his drive and work ethic.

Mills, who refers to himself as a “recovering meathead,” always had a commitment to the weight room and dabbled in Olympic lifting dating back to his high school days. The ASU weight room is where his head strength coach at the time, Joe Kenn, took notice of the 6-foot-3 Mills’ character and potential as an athlete.

“He came in with a great work ethic,” Kenn said. “His high school weightlifting program was extremely above average and well beyond his time, so when he came to us, he was very technically savvy and understood the weightroom a lot more than a lot of the other guys we had.

“He was a local kid, came on as a walk-on, worked his way into a good role for us and parlayed that hard work and determination into being a professional athlete.”

Mills always had professional football ambitions. It wasn’t until Kenn enlightened him about the crew aspect of NASCAR that Mills even considered a career in motorsports.

It’s not unheard of for collegiate football players to exchange shoulder pads for a fire suit on a NASCAR team. Rowdy Harrell, a member of three University of Alabama national championship teams as a linebacker, has made the transition. So has Appalachian State’s Matt Metcalf and Richie Williams.

Kenn, who served as the Carolina Panthers’ strength and conditioning coach following his tenure at ASU, established relationships within the NASCAR world during this time and ultimately put Mills in contact with various pit crew coaches across the sport.

Once Mills talked with Kenn and pit crew coaches, he became more receptive to the idea of a career in racing. He was particularly drawn to the physicality and team aspects of the sport.

After serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mesa native returned home and began working in the construction industry. He vividly remembers he was in the middle of putting in a sewer line when he got the call that would change his life.

He was offered the opportunity to travel to North Carolina, where he would have the chance to workout for a NASCAR pit crew without pay.

“It was a really big leap, looking back,” Mills said. “I started off with this idea like ‘I’m just going to get into racing, it’s a good way to make some money when you’re younger, it’ll be fun to be part of a team,’ but I didn’t have any connection with it.

“Finding myself on the flipside, I’ve worked on some of these phenomenal teams that have, on the track, been able to really get things done and I’ve been lucky enough to win as many races as we’ve won.”

Kellen Mills (85) was a defensive end for ASU and played special teams. (Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing)

The ASU alum’s NASCAR career began its ascent when he took on a gasman role at the highly regarded Team Penske. During this time, Mills worked closely with one of the most revered figures in motorsports, Roger Penske.

In what Mills called, “one of the most valuable times of my life,” he got to see first hand how Penske operated and evaluated his teams. In turn, this gave him a better appreciation and understanding of the sport.

Mills went on to be an integral part of Joey Logano and the No. 22 team’s success as a fueler in the NASCAR Cup Series without relinquishing his sense of leadership. By 2018, he solidified his status as one of the best at his craft, yet he was determined to grow even more as a person and athlete.

At a point in his career where many people would be content, Mills sought to take the next step to prolong his days in NASCAR by becoming a jackman. Unfortunately, Penske only saw him as a gasman.

Mills set out to prove himself by taking to the weight room and drastically increasing his Olympic lifting program. One person who took notice of Mills’ determination was his pit crew coach, Brian Haaland.

Haaland worked with Mills for over five years at Team Penske and developed a strong rapport with him during this time.

“He’s a guy that knows and believes in hard work paying off and getting rewarded for that,” Haaland said. “He’s a workhorse, he loves the details of how to get better, he’s very organized and wants to go through the entire week and not leave any stone unturned in preparation to getting himself and his team the best chance to dominate on pit road.”

Coincidentally, both Mills and Haaland moved from Team Penske to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019. Haaland maintained his status as a pit crew coach, while Mills would continue to be a gasman, this time for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team. Although fulfilling the same duties, they hoped a change in scenery would start a new chapter in their respective careers.

Mills was welcomed with open arms by NASCAR and NFL Hall of Famer, Joe Gibbs, and picked up almost immediately on the familial values exuded by the sports icon.

“Being with Joe (Gibbs), it’s cool knowing there’s this level of investment in you as the individual and bringing opportunities for you to become something more than you may have been in the first place,” Mills said.

The Arizona native was honored to have learned from a business-mind like Penske, but had a profound respect for Gibbs’ coaching mentality and emphasis on human development. Beyond that, Mills was blown away by the analytical-side of the prestigious organization that allowed each person to refine their craft.

Mills praised Haaland and the rest of the coaching staff’s ability to articulate complex numbers and data in a timely manner in a way athletes like himself can easily comprehend.

“With football, the only constants are the field, the ball and a few of the rules that require you to behave certain ways, but there’s so many variables going on it’s really hard to get it down to the essence of who’s better between two players and it’s a very subjective thing; whereas racing is very limited,” Mills said. “It’s pretty easy to dial down exactly over a single day or even a whole season down to tenths and hundredths of a second who’s actually the best at their job.

“It’s cool to be on a team of guys where we know, relative to competition, there’s a high likelihood that we’re going to outperform in those specialized situations, because we’ve taken the time to take the magnifying glass out to see what areas we can gain a little bit of speed in.”

Kellen Mills (top left) poses with the No. 11 crew after Denny Hamlin’s huge win at Phoenix Raceway in November of 2019 that advanced them to the Championship 4. (Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing)

Haaland was well aware of Mills’ desire to transition to a jackman role upon joining Joe Gibbs Racing. And while the entire team took notice of his rigorous workouts and to-the-minute scheduling, what the pit crew coach saw on display was nothing like he’d seen at Team Penske.

He saw a vigilant leader on a mission to propel himself and others around him into the greatest individuals they could be. This is when Mills finally got the promotion he’d been seeking in May, 2019.

While the three-career Daytona 500 victories and multiple Championship appearances are moments he’ll cherish forever, Mills feels his greatest accomplishment thus far is achieving that transitional role as a result of inner growth.

“I came to Gibbs as a gasman and then making that transition from gassing into jacking, for me, was the biggest thing, because that was kind of moving into a bigger piece,” Mills said. “Being able to make that shift for me was good. To be on the 11 team and to go on this very successful run within that role, it’s been cool to go somewhere else, get into that position I was going after and then to have so much with these guys and adopting that role. It’s been very rewarding for me.”

Over the last two seasons, the No. 11 team has consistently been one of the top crews on pit road. It came as no surprise to Haaland that Mills’ elevation in performance followed in synchronicity with his transition to jacking.

“The pit stop starts and stops with him,” Haaland said. “You can’t do anything until the right side of the car is up in the air, which is his first job, and then the car can’t leave until the left side tires are changed and he drops the car. What Kellen brings as a leader to that group – and really since he’s taken over in May of last year as the jackman on the No. 11 – that team has just excelled and improved weekly to now where they’re a legitimate top-three team in the sport, and a lot of that is that way Kellen came in and kind of changed the entire culture on that team.

“He took a lot of guys who were content with their position and he pushed them – he continues to push them and me – to find speed in their pit stops. He’s a key, key part to that team.”

Haaland revealed there was about a 12-week stretch this season where Hamlin and the No. 11 crew were almost unstoppable and, even in that span of dominance, Mills was challenging himself and the rest of the staff to come up with more methods that would extend their excellence beyond the competition.

Mills’ inherent leadership attributes that ultimately guided the No. 11 team to two consecutive Championship runs earned him a secondary role at Joe Gibbs Racing as an assistant strength coach.

“He’s never content with just good enough,” Haaland said. “His desire to be the best is the biggest thing that sticks out to me and the way he has that ability to make everybody around him better. I know people say that and you hear it an awful lot, but truly, Kellen’s the guy that you want to build a team around.”

Hamlin came up just short of winning his first Cup Series title in 2020, in a year where the No. 11 team compiled seven victories and 21 Top 10s. This left Mills with what he called a “championship void” left to fill.

Although he was with Logano during 2018 when he won the Championship, Mills wasn’t fueling the car the entire second half of the season due to contract negotiations. Luckily, the dominance of Hamlin doesn’t seem to be regressing and the leadership of Mills is bound to lead the No. 11 team to more success in 2021.

He’ll have another shot at filling that void next season at Phoenix Raceway, but for now, he’s staying in Arizona with his wife and two children, one of whom will celebrate a second birthday on Thanksgiving.

It’s been quite the journey for the former ASU walk-on, whose career appears to be moving as fast as some of the cars on the track.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Cole Cusumano was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, but has lived in Arizona for more than 14 years. He expects to graduate in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite News with an emphasis on sports.