Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Xfinity Series Spotlight: Chris Gabehart, racer turned crew chief

Leave a comment

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.

Follow @KellyCrandall

Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

Leave a comment

The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

1 Comment

NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”

Truck starting lineup at Michigan

Truck starting lineup at Michigan
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Chandler Smith will be on the pole after a random draw set the Truck starting lineup for Friday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Brett Moffitt will join Smith on the front row of the Truck starting lineup. Rookie Christian Eckes will start third and be followed by Matt Crafton, who won at Kansas in the most recent Truck race, and Austin Hill.

Click here for Truck starting lineup

Here is how the lineup was set:

  • Positions 1 -10: The first 10 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 10th using a random draw.
  • Positions 11 – 21: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 11- 21 using a random draw.
  • positions 22 – 32: The next 11 NGROTS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 22nd – 32nd  using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 33rd – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

NASCAR Truck Series at Michigan 

Race Time: 6 p.m. ET Friday

Track: Michigan International Speedway: Brooklyn, Michigan (2-mile speedway)

Length: 100 laps (200 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 20. Stage 2 ends Lap 40.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: Saturday at Michigan (156 laps, 312 miles) 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Road America (45 laps, 182.16 miles) noon ET on NBCSN