‘This will look unlike any NASCAR season in our history — by a mile’

AP Photo/Terry Renna
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Chris Gabehart doesn’t know what the remainder of the 2020 Cup schedule will look like, but the crew chief for Denny Hamlin knows how it will unfold.

And as the plan for finishing the season continues to move “from liquid to solid,” Gabehart said he is “antsy, excited, focused and apprehensive” of what the final 32 races will hold.

“This is going to look unlike any NASCAR season in our history — by a mile,” Gabehart said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Obviously being a crew chief, I’m a major part of building a plan and unfolding that logistically. Crew chiefs have enough variables to deal with on a daily basis under normal circumstances. This will be an amount of variables that are completely unparalleled.

“You’re going to see a lot like a year ago when the new rules package was unfolded. There was so much uncertainty, you never know who’s going to be up front when or why. Well, this is going to be very similar but in a different way because we’re dealing with so many unknowns about how to prepare for a race.”

There could be fewer unknows soon as NASCAR seems to be closing in on announcing a finalized schedule for the remainder of May that likely would start at Darlington Raceway and include the Coca-Cola 600.

There could be multiple trips to Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway and tracks within driving distance such as Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are being given priority.

In part because there likely will be midweek races between weekend races, it’s expected there will be no practice and possibly qualifying for one-day events that will send teams directly into the race.

“If we go Wednesday racing, not only are we not going to get practice or qualify, but our prep time’s cut in half because you’ll be racing Sunday, then Wednesday, then Sunday, then Wednesday,” Gabehart said. “It’s just a lot of differences. So there’s a lot to keep track of as a crew chief right now. Certainly, the planning side of it is starting to actually matter. There was a while there for a few weeks where it didn’t do good to do a whole lot, because (the schedule was) just going to change 10 minutes from now anyway. But we’re certainly past that. So it’s exciting.”

Gabehart said Joe Gibbs Racing has had planning meetings have been happening for weeks via videoconferencing. Employees will begin entering the team’s Huntersville, North Carolina, shop “any day now.

“And it’s going to happen in waves of essential personnel, nonessential personnel and all the things we need to do to stay safe,” Gabehart said. “But there’s been work going on behind the scenes, no doubt. And everybody’s looking forward to getting back to the shop and try to get going with our lives again to try to establish a new normal.”

JGR and other teams already had cars prepared for Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, which both were scheduled to hold races before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put the NASCAR season on hold.

“We do have a little bit of a backstop in terms of inventory, but again, our cycle time is not seven days a week,” Gabehart said. “Now it’ll be three days a week of putting another car on the racetrack and then that car has to go back in the system and get ready to go race again. So that’s going to be a challenge.”

So will social distancing, as teams will be limited as far as how many crewmembers are at the track and how they are allowed to assemble cars around the shop.

“Certainly as we go back to work, all the race teams are going to practice much different social distancing techniques than we ever have before,” Gabehart said. “Well, that’s going to be very unfamiliar, so it’s going to slow productivity down until we figure out how to maximize that. So you’ve got the schedule accelerating on prep time. And productivity decelerating because of social distancing. That’s really going to be a challenge balancing that.

“And then the other side of it of course is in these races where we’re going to unload with very little to no track time prior to the first lap of the race. We’re counting score right away. How do you prepare for that best? Who hits it the best? How do your drivers get locked in right away? That first run establishes track position. That’s going to be the week-to-week challenge that you guys are going to get to see unfold on TV.”

Hamlin got off to a strong start in 2020, winning his second consecutive Daytona 500, and Gabehart likes how the revised schedule could lay out for his driver.

“These are racetracks that are in right Denny Hamlin’s wheelhouse,” said Gabehart, who reached the 2019 championship round in his first season with Hamlin. “So honestly I couldn’t be more excited about the schedule that sounds like is laying in front of us, because I think there’s a ton of opportunity for us to wrap our hands firmly around this season, and I look forward to doing it.

“One thing I love about our sport, no matter the challenges, at the end of the day, whether it be a Saturday night or a Sunday or maybe even some Wednesdays here. They’re going to hand out a checkered flag and a trophy, and that signifies whoever did it the best on that day, and I don’t care what the rules or circumstances were. That’s our report card.”

During the podcast, Gabehart also discussed his involvement and support of Hamlin’s iRacing this season.

A winner in the Super Late Model ranks before becoming a crew chief, Gabehart has been practicing with Hamlin before races during the week and learning more about how to tune his No. 11 Toyota. Through the magic of Twitch, he also has seen a new side of Hamlin by watching his driver’s eyes and mannerisms in the way he stays focused and manages races.

“It’s been really neat the Twitch broadcasts are a lot of these drivers are doing, and Denny in particular,” Gabehart said. “I’ve really enjoyed watching that as much or more than the race because it allows me to evaluate how he works in more than just watching the 11 car go around the racetrack and every now and then, he keys the button and talks to me. I visually can watch how he thinks, what he looks at, how he reacts.

“It just gives me a whole new aspect, getting to visit inside Denny Hamlin’s mind while he’s doing the real deal, which is as close to it as can be without the fear side of it. He’s not worried about crashing into a wall at 190 mph, but you’re getting to really experience what it is he’s going through and how he thinks.”

During the podcast, Gabehart also discusses:

–His passion for iRacing and how long he’s been involved;

–His background as a real driver in Super Late Models;

–How iRacing can build the communication between Gabehart and Hamlin as NASCAR restarts without practice this season.

You can listen to Gabehart’s appearance on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode by clicking on the embed above, or downloading at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.