Xfinity Series Spotlight: Chris Gabehart, racer turned crew chief

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Chris Gabehart had hopes of being a NASCAR driver, but ending up the crew chief of the No. 20 Xfinity Series team at Joe Gibbs Racing is just fine, too.

“I was destined to be in racing some way, shape or form no matter how much my dad hoped that one day I’d want to be a pilot instead,” Gabehart told NBC Sports with a laugh.

His grandfather and father were both racers and his grandfather even dabbled in NASCAR in the 1960s. Gabehart was in a go-kart by the time he was 10 and his career culminated with the 2007 CRA/ARCA Super Series championship. It was around that time that Gabehart realized he had probably done all the driving he would and racing would cost him more money than he would ever make.

“So here I am working on them now,” he said.

His mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University paid off. Gabehart’s time in Late Models resulted in him crossing paths with Kyle Busch. Conversations with Busch and his father, Tom, landed Gabehart at Kyle Busch Motorsports to work on his Late Model program.

He soon moved up to Joe Gibbs Racing as an engineer, spending time on Busch and Denny Hamlin’s teams. In January, Gabehart was named the crew chief for Erik Jones in his rookie Xfinity season.

At 35 and married, Gabehart has begun to see the world outside of motorsports but being the racer at heart that he is, he admits that’s a large portion of his life. Which means you’re likely to find Gabehart following his driver to a Late Model race when the schedule permits.

“A lot of what I do is race,” Gabehart said. “I do enjoy racquetball, hanging out with the guys, going to movies, going to friend’s house. That kind of stuff, but nothing extraordinary, I don’t have the time for it. I’m a simple guy. I race, and I sleep, and I eat.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Expand on your decision to get out of the driver’s seat and how meeting Kyle Busch played a role in that

Gabehart: When I was done with school up in Indiana at Purdue I was racing with a Late Model team out of Indianapolis. Started building shocks for a company called Advance Racing Suspension as a side job and was just full blown racer, doing well, but was running out of funding. Once I won the championship in 2007, the team I was with, that was about as far as they were going to take me in terms of money and ability. I built my own car to run a few choice races because I love racing, and I wanted to keep going. Did a part-time deal in 2008 up there in building shocks and crew chiefing and driving, kind of the whole thing, and then in 2009 I took a full-time crew chief job in Atlanta, Georgia, with a kid named TJ Reid with Late Model stuff. Brought my car down there and started a little shock business, so that path was continuing to develop. I was staying busy, phone consulting a little bit, and kind of had it all going on.

I always knew the NASCAR thing was in the back of my mind; I wanted to drive when I was a younger guy, but I realized that’s probably not going to happen. I thought if I’m ever going to try (something else) someone with the connections and ability of Kyle Busch would be a great way to try it out. So Tom (Busch) and I ended up talking, and I got the crew chief deal for Kyle Busch Motorsports for 2010 and moved to North Carolina. I did that for a year and was fairly successful at that. With my engineering degree Kyle was needing some help on trucks as well, so in 2011, I did Late Model stuff and Trucks. Then towards the end of that year, there was an opportunity on his Cup team to be an engineer, so things were obviously going well and again, I looked at Kyle as a great resource to try and advance my career, so I’m like, well, I better take this opportunity, too. To Joe Gibbs Racing I came, and here I am.

NBC Sports: Was it always racing for you, or did you try any other sports when you were younger?

Gabehart: In grade school, I played baseball and basketball and was pretty decent at both. But again, I started racing pretty competitively at the age of 11, regionally and even starting to tour nationally in go-karts. At a pretty young age, it was either baseball and basketball, summer and fall type sports, and it quickly became the choice of I’m going to race, or I’m going to play the stick-and-ball sports. I chose racing.

NBC Sports: How much of your approach do you have to change when you go from a more experienced driver to a younger driver?

Gabehart: I think the skill sets can be very different. For me, my previous driving experience definitely helps me every day at my job. For a younger driver, I would say I lean on my experience to help pull information out of them by trying to relate to them based on my past experiences. So if I’m getting feedback from Christopher (Bell) and now Erik, I think I understand what he means, but I’m leaning on some experience that I have. I know the right questions to ask to get the information out of him whereas with a more experienced driver like Kyle, he knows what he needs to tell me, so instead I lean on my past experiences to understand what he’s saying.

NBC Sports: Does it make your job easier being a former driver?

Gabehart: No question about it. There are many successful crew chiefs out there who haven’t driven, but I make it no secret that they are way smarter than I because I don’t know how I could do it without previous experiences. I tip my hat to those who have never driven very much but have become very successful in this sport because, for me, I lean on it every day. But I think that highlights something that is really neat about my job at this level and above – it’s so much more than making a race car go fast. It’s managing people and projects and getting the most out of people and looking far enough ahead to determine what you need six months from now and making sure the driver has what he needs and gets along well with the team. All of those things have nothing to do with particularly making a race car go fast and certainly not my past driving experience, but they’re vital to making a good race team. There’s a great reason why you don’t have to be a past driver to be an excellent crew chief, so there’s so much more to it than that.

NBC Sports: Crew chiefs are thought of as the ones constantly working, but there has to be things you do to get away from racing?

Gabehart: (laughs) Well I must tell you I’ve been married for about two-and-a-half years now, but I’ve been with the same woman for almost 13 years. Before her, I raced, and that’s what I did. After her, I race a lot, but she is expanding my horizons. The past couple of years we’ve been on big offseason vacations which is something I never did before her. This year we’re going to Hawaii for a week and a half. Last year we went to Sweden and London over the New Year and went above the Arctic Circle in Sweden and to the Ice Hotel up there. It was amazing, right? The whole thing was great. So what do I do and what I enjoy? I don’t know. It’s not like I play basketball in my spare time, but she is definitely helping me expand my horizons and see the world, so that’s kind of cool.

NBC Sports: Being in the Late Model world is much smaller than NASCAR, so when you changed careers when did it strike you that you were in the big time?

Gabehart: My first week in Daytona when I was on the Cup side. It’s a long week because you have the Unlimited before the Duel races. So that’s long and grueling because you have to have three cars ready – backup, the Unlimited car, and the Daytona 500 car. Then you fly back home for a day or two and then you’re back down there for a week. Well, the Daytona 500 that year was the year (2012) it rained out and we had a Monday night 500. Then after that our planes were fogged in, so that week and a half was, ‘Wow, if this is what this is going to be like, I don’t know if I can handle this (laughs).’ It was just non-stop one event after the next.

This year from a crew chief perspective, we had the schedule of Daytona week, then Atlanta, and the three weeks out west. Well, I liken that to a college hazing because as a crew chief you’re forced to plan and organize those five races before you ever leave for Daytona because you just don’t have enough cars, people, and resources to force it through each week. The last race was Fontana, and most of the planning and organizing and shipping of equipment back and forth was all done, and when I was done with that, I said to myself, ‘Wow, that has been a rough five weeks, I do not know why they pile it all up front like that.’ But I feel like I made it, and I’m a member of the club now.

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Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.