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).

GMS Racing reveals full-time driver-crew chief lineup, number assignments

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GMS Racing has announced its full-time driver-crew chief lineup for the 2020 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season and number assignments for its trucks:

– Chad Norris has been named crew chief for Brett Moffitt and the No. 23 Chevrolet team. Moffitt drove the No. 24 in his first season with the team. Norris has been with GMS Racing for two years and directed the effort that delivered the team its 2018 Xfinity Series win at Talladega.

– Chad Walter will lead Tyler Ankrum and the No. 26 team. 2020 will be Ankrum’s first season with GMS Racing. Walter served as an engineer for Ankrum this season at DGR-Crosley. Walter has five wins and 42 top fives in 208 Xfinity Series starts as crew chief.

– Kevin “Bono” Manion is paired with Zane Smith on the No. 21 Chevrolet. 2020 will be Smith’s first full-time Trucks season after competing part-time for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. Manion has 24 wins as crew chief across all three national series since 2003. He led Martin Truex Jr. to his two Xfinity Series titles.

– Jeff Stankiewicz will remain as the crew chief for the No. 2 team piloted by Sheldon Creed.

Social Roundup: How NASCAR drivers are spending their offseason

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NASCAR’s Champion’s week is now behind us and we are firmly in the offseason.

Well, sort of.

The NASCAR world never really stops, which is evident simply due to the continued announcements for the 2020 season.

But with Joey Logano testing the Next Gen car at Phoenix earlier this week and Dale Earnhardt Jr. helping clean up North Wilkesboro Speedway for iRacing, it’s been anything but quiet.

Here’s a look at what else happened in the NASCAR community this week.

Someone needs to check in on Jimmie Johnson, he could be in his own version of Mr. Mom.

Chris Buescher is home again.

The 2015 Xfinity Series champion is back at Roush Fenway Racing for the 2020 Cup season and he’s got the firesuits and cars to prove it.

Brad Keselowski recently became father to a second daughter.

He’s now learning some important life lessons.

Former Front Row Motorsports driver Matt Tifft is now off the market after getting married to his fiance, Jordan. Now they’re on their honeymoon.

 

Matt DiBenedetto showed off one of the perks of being a Wood Brothers Racing employee.

Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace went somewhere warm to start their holiday.

Joey and Caitlin Gase welcome twin sons

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Xfinity Series driver Joey Gase and his wife Caitlin are now parents to twin boys

The babies were born on Wednesday. Their names are Jace and Carson.

More: Brad and Paige Keselowski welcome second daughter

Silly Season Scorecard: Front Row Motorsports adds John Hunter Nemechek

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Front Row Motorsports filled one of the last major vacancies in the NASCAR Cup Series when it announced Thursday John Hunter Nemechek will compete for the team full-time in the No. 38 Ford.

With the announcement also came the news the team is retracting to two cars after fielding three in 2019.

As a rookie, Nemechek will have Michael McDowell as a teammate.

Here’s how the rest of NASCAR’s Silly Season has played out so far.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 00: Quin Houff will race for Star Com Racing full-time. Announced Nov. 27.

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 15: Brennan Poole will make his Cup debut and will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time. Announced Dec 11.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will return for a second straight full season with Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

No. 37: Ryan Preece moves over from the No. 47 to the No. 37. He will have a new crew chief, Trent Owens, who has been crew chief on the No. 37 for the past three seasons.

No. 38: John Hunter Nemechek replaces the now retired David Ragan for Front Row Motorsports. Announced Dec. 12.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 47: JTG Daugherty Racing announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. On Dec. 2, the team announced Stenhouse will drive the No. 47, with Brian Pattie serving as his crew chief.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

 

YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

 

ANNOUNCED PLANS IN OTHER NASCAR SERIES

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Will field a part-time car in the No. 21, which will be shared by Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

 

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Halmar Friesen Racing — Stewart Friesen will return for a third full-time season in the No. 52 Truck. The team will also switch from Chevrolet to Toyota Trucks in 2020.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

Niece Motorsports: Ty Majeski will drive the No. 45 truck full-time, taking the place of Ross Chastain. Announced Dec. 10.

DGR-Crosley: Has not made any driver announcements, but will switch from Toyota to Ford. Announced Dec. 11.

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