Denny Hamlin may have won Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, but his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, may have been the biggest winner of all.
Gabehart’s gutsy pit calls, not to mention talking Hamlin down and keeping him calm after issues with an uncontrolled tire, speeding and running out of fuel, were the biggest keys and turning point that allowed Hamlin to take the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to victory lane for the second time this season.
On Monday’s NASCAR America, our analysts – Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett – all agreed that Gabehart’s signal calling atop the pit box was as crucial as what Hamlin did behind the wheel.
“It takes good strategy, takes good execution and the 11 recovers from all of that,” Letarte said matter-of-factly.
Burton went one step further, pointing out that it wasn’t just good strategy, but the race was long enough that it gave Gabehart the ability to gamble at times to optimize that strategy.
“Sometimes you have to gamble to get track position right now,” Burton said. “Maybe that hurts you later, but you get that track position and cautions lay the way where you never give it up.
“Those are the types of decisions you have to make right then and there. … What I saw Sunday was track position was king. And whatever you had to do to get track position at the right time of the race – which may have been a gamble, may not have been something that maybe didn’t work out – but you had to try it right then and just hope you caught the cautions right.”
One of the most difficult decisions Gabehart had to make was not to take tires late in the race – something that many of his crew chief counterparts chose to go in the opposite direction.
“It was a very difficult decision to wrestle with (not to take tires),” Gabehart admitted during a post-race interview. “For our car and the performance and everything we were seeing, it wasn’t just a track position oriented race because we found a way to give that away a lot in the race.
“But minimum time on pit road and for our scenario each time, it just made the most sense and fortunately it worked out.”
While Hamlin may have privately questioned Gabehart’s strategy, it proved spot-on.
“(Gabehart) didn’t roll Denny under the bus for speeding, they may have had an out of gas issue, then they had the uncontrolled tire,” Letarte said. “But the simple fact is they continued to work together and more importantly the crew chief kept taking swings, he wasn’t out of the game.
“He always had a plan. They may not always work, but I love a crew chief with a plan.”
Gabehart was indeed that man with a plan and Hamlin and the rest of the No. 11 team were the big beneficiaries.