HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were several aggressive calls by Chris Gabehart that got Denny Hamlin back to the championship round this season.
But the first-year crew chief’s final gamble might have cost Hamlin the championship.
With Hamlin running second and closing in on Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the No. 11 team applied a thick swath of tape to the right side of Hamlin’s front grille in the hope of gaining speed during its last scheduled pit stop with 58 laps remaining.
The aerodynamic adjustment backfired, forcing Hamlin to pit again 12 laps later with an engine on the verge of overheating.
“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” Gabehart said. “We just tried to pull off a really difficult play and didn’t get it done and unfortunately, as good as our car was at the end, I don’t know if we needed it anyway, but a race team isn’t going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire.
“You’ve got to dance with the fire to beat these guys. That’s what this race team does, but the problem with dancing with it is, every now and then you get burned.”
Hamlin, who rebounded to finish 10th despite the race staying green through the end, seemed fine with the tradeoff. He and Gabehart had a short and upbeat conversation outside his car after the race that ended with mutual pats on the shoulder.
Hamlin smiled and shrugged his way through several questions about the call, noting that similar strategic aggression by Gabehart had contributed to him scoring six victories in 2019 (his most in nine years) – including a clutch victory at ISM Raceway last week (sealing it on another aggressive call for two tires)
After overcoming a mediocre first two stages, Hamlin led his first (and only) two laps after a final restart with 101 laps remaining. He was within striking distance with Busch when he made the fateful pit stop, and his engine temperature began to spike to its limits.
With more than 40 laps remaining, there was no hope of the engine living through the checkered flag without “a miracle” or a caution flag, so Hamlin was forced to stop.
“It was going to blow up or run out of water, and at that point, if I stayed out and was going to blow, now it’s going to possibly screw my teammates over out of getting a win,” Hamlin said. “We were a stone’s throw to Kyle, and at the end of the runs, we’d run back to him
“At that point, our car woke up, I woke up, and it was fast. It was going to be fun. I was really looking forward to running those last 40 laps, 50 laps. And having the challenge of ‘Can I get them?’ ”
Gabehart thought his driver could with the help of a risky adjustment that was highly unfamiliar for his team to make under pressure.
“It’s uncharted territory for how our cars are built,” Gabehart said. “There’s no need to get into more specifics than that. We just didn’t execute that play. I wish I could have it back and just not have been so greedy there. I don’t know that we needed it anyway. I think we were at least going to get there, which is all you can ask for, right? Line up at the end with a shot.
“And we had a shot. Golly. We were awful. We were awful for two straight stages, and Denny Hamlin says we are not done. I don’t care. I’m going to drive this race car all the way to the end of this race because I believe in my race team. They will get it better. And at the start of that last stage, we got it better, and we had a shot at them and we just got burned.”
The tape was hastily slapped on the car just as Hamlin was leaving the car, but Gabehart said he was fully responsible for the error and wasn’t angry at his pit crew.
“Oh heck no, man,” he said. “This is pro sports. Winners want the ball and take the shot, and sometimes they miss it. And my race team is full of winners, and they want the ball. That doesn’t mean they’re going to execute every time, but they want the ball.
“It has nothing to do with the pit crew. I am the leader of this race team. I called an aggressive play. They tried to execute it, because that’s what they do. That’s what their job is. And it doesn’t mean they’re going to make it every time. But this is not in their playbook. What we tried to pull off right here is trying to win Homestead and let the emotion of the moment get the best of you trying to do it and we just got too aggressive plain and simple. That’s OK. That’s on me.”
Hindsight was even more painful given how fast the No. 11 was after the unscheduled stop. Gabehart said Hamlin probably wouldn’t have needed the tape.
“But in the heat of the moment, and you’re fighting for your life, you want every last hundredth of a second, so that’s the nature of what we do,” Gabehart said. “We tried to get every last hundredth of a second, and that’s what we did, and it just didn’t work out.”
Did Hamlin think he could have won without the extra stop?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It remains to be seen, right? I stayed right there within a couple of seconds of (Busch), but at this racetrack, you can’t use all the tricks until the end because it puts your car at risk, but I was getting ready to give it all I had. I’d empty the tank and if we crash, we crash. Who knows.
“(Busch) was very good, let’s not discredit that. But would have loved the shot to get him.”
No one else seemed to think less of the effort by Hamlin, who received nonstop well wishes and autograph requests from track workers and fans on the short walk from his car to the media center.
Former crew chief Darian Grubb congratulated him with a handshake. Austin Peyton, his childhood friend and longtime personal manager, gave him a hug as they walked together. Cup Series director Jay Fabian offered a hearty “Good job” and more words of encouragement.
Though there was no postrace visit as there had been in 2014 from Michael Jordan (the NBA legend was in attendance again and chatted with Hamlin before the race), Hamlin at least could look forward to a birthday celebration Sunday (he will turn 39) and a party to celebrate his season.
With no regrets.
“I was frustrated for sure (by the pit stop miscue), but (Gabehart) is going for it,” Hamlin said. “He is going for it. It’s just the way it is.
“We’ll go next year and win a lot of races. We’re going to win a lot. Hopefully get ourselves back in this position again, learn from it and see what happens.”