Call to ‘dance with the fire’ leaves Denny Hamlin burned on pit gamble

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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.”

Crew chief Chris Gabehart watches practice Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (AP Photo/Terry Renna).

A ‘crucial’ year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hailie Deegan will be racing a sports car today at Daytona International Speedway with an eye toward her future in stock cars.

Signed by Ford Performance to a developmental deal that will put her in a full-time ARCA car (and possibly a truck race or two) this season, Deegan was surprised when the manufacturer also expressed a desire to put her in a few IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge events.

The first will be Friday’s season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge, a four-hour warmup race at Daytona International Speedway ahead of Saturday’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

Deegan and Xfinity Series veteran Chase Briscoe will start 20th in the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

MEET HAILIE DEEGAN: ‘I put my helmet on the same way as everyone else’

“I originally never planned on this, but (Ford) came to me and were like ‘we want to get you on our IMSA program,’” Deegan said. “’That’s what we did with Briscoe, (Cole) Custer, (Austin) Cindric. All the guys that came through the ranks with Ford.’

“When they told me that, I was excited because more road courses will be in the NASCAR world, and there already are quite a few. I think what makes an all-around good driver are the ones that are good at every single type of track.”

There’s been much talk of adding road and street races to the Cup schedule in the next few years, and the Xfinity Series schedule just expanded to five road courses with the move from the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4 that will be driven by Hailie Deegan and Chase Briscoe.

Deegan, 18, still remains a long way from the top two national series, but they are her goal, which makes 2020 critical for earning results.

“This is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels,” said Deegan, who had three K&N Series victories in 2018-19. “If we can do good this year, I feel I can get more people behind me so we can go in the top three level series (of NASCAR), and have sponsors that want to stay with me full time while I’m there.

“My goal is to win a few races in the ARCA Series, which is going to be hard. There are a lot of good guys, good cars this year.”

Aside from running full time in ARCA for DGR-Crosley, Deegan would “love to do a truck race” if the sponsorship materializes, “but funding right now is all focused on ARCA so we can try to work toward those championships and winning races. I know I want to be in a good car with good people behind me. If we can focus on that, hopefully everything else will come along.”

Click here to read the full version of this story from NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk.

2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Start time, TV schedule, lineup and more

Speedy Cash expands deal with Front Row Motorsports, John Hunter Nemechek

John Hunter Nemechek
Front Row Motorsports
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After sponsoring John Hunter Nemechek in two of his first three Cup Series starts last year, Speed Cash has expanded its backing of Nemechek for the 2020 season, Front Row Motorsports announced Friday.

Speedy Cash, an omni-channel financial services provider specializing in short-term loans, will be on Nemechek’s No. 38 Ford for multiple races, including events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

It will serve as an associate sponsor throughout the year for both Nemechek and Michael McDowell and his No. 34 Ford Mustang team.

Speedy Cash sponsored Nemechek last November in his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway and in the season finale at Miami. Nemechek finished 21st at Texas, the best of his three starts filling in for Matt Tifft in the No. 36 Ford after he stepped out of the car due to suffering a seizure.

Nemechek will be part of a deep rookie class in Cup this year after he raced full-time for GMS Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2019.

“As a driver, partnerships like this one with Speedy Cash are so important to our entire team,” Nemechek said in a press release. “It’s always great to see partners expanding their involvement in the sport. For me, Speedy Cash is pretty cool. If you need cash, there are so many easy ways you can get it using their services. I enjoyed getting to know them in the last few races of the 2019 season and we’re going to work hard to make them proud in 2020.”

 

Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

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While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.

It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.

Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.

Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.

“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.

He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.

“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.

“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”

Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”

Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.

“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”

Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.

As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.

2. A big deal

After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.

“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.

“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.

“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”

Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.

“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.

“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”

Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4. 15 and counting …

Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.

The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.

So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

Matt Tifft reveals he suffered another seizure

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Matt Tifft revealed Thursday night that he suffered another seizure on Dec. 12 while on his honeymoon.

Tifft, 23, suffered a seizure Oct. 26, 2019 at Martinsville Speedway, forcing him out of his Front Row Motorsports ride for the rest of the NASCAR Cup season. He and the team announced Nov. 13 that they would end their agreement so Tifft could focus on his health.

In a social media post Thursday, Tifft detailed what happened Dec. 12 and afterward:

“This one rocked me pretty badly, as I was conscious for a lot more of the convulsions, and it really has taken everything in me to return to feeling somewhat “normal.”

Tifft also said the experience has haunted him.

“Anxiety, PTSD, fear or whatever you call it of that seizure has played through my head nearly everyday. Luckily, these last few weeks I’ve finally seen improvements after going to therapy and trying to “rewire” my brain. It started off really rough, where I could hardly leave my house without having intense anxiety and panic attacks about having another seizure, which I have never had in my life before.

“I’m committed to “rewiring” my brain and to restore my mental health. I’ve never suffered a mental illness before. Even with the brain tumor in 2016 and first seizure, I never had these effects. I never knew how debilitating it could feel to live with constant fear and anxiety.

“But now, I do see a light in this getting better, however as I continue with this road to recovery with these issues and finding answers, I just wanted to make it know that my deepest sympathy goes out to those who deal with these issues on an everyday basis, and I can’t thank my wife; family and friends enough for their continued support.”

Tifft had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain July 21, 2016. He returned racing. He placed sixth in points in the Xfinity Series in 2018. Tifft competed in Cup in 2019 as a rookie until his seizure at Martinsville.