It’s too soon to anoint greatness but what Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart have done is remarkable.
Thursday night’s victory at Kansas Speedway was their 11th in 52 Cup races together, a remarkable 21.2% winning percentage.
This from a driver who went winless in 2018 and heard the whispers that his future at Joe Gibbs Racing could be in jeopardy. But Gabehart joined the No. 11 team last year, created a winning expectation and reinforced it not only to the team but to Hamlin.
When Hamlin said last fall at Phoenix that he wouldn’t base the success or failure of his season on if he advanced to the championship race, Gabehart texted his driver upon hearing the comment and told Hamlin to expect more of himself.
It’s that mentality that has led to such a strong beginning for Hamlin and Gabehart.
“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.
“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.
“That relationship really works well. We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.”
What they’ve done ranks among the best starts for a driver-crew chief pairing in recent years.
Crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5% winning percentage). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%).
The main difference is that Childers and Harvick won a title in their first year in 2014, and Stevens and Busch won the championship in 2015 in their first year.
Hamlin and Gabehart might have joined them last year in their first full season together but an aggressive call by Gabehart backfired. A large piece of tape placed over the front grille overheated the engine and forced Hamlin to pit. He never got a chance to race for the lead because the pit stop had put him too far back.
Hamlin and Gabehart rebounded by winning the next points race, this year’s Daytona 500.
When the duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson was mentioned to Gabehart after Thursday’s race, he quickly demurred at any such comparison.
“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period. Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.
“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category. That’s not for me to do. I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.
“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.
“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win. Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.”
What stands out about Hamlin and Gabehart is the variety of tracks they’ve won.
They’ve won on a short track, on a 1-mile track, on a track between 1 and 1.5 miles and on tracks 2.5 miles. This isn’t a team taking advantage of a setup at one particular track but showing strength everywhere.
“I think he believes in his race team,” Gabehart said of Hamlin. “That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.
“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”
2. Reward for a long night
William Byron raced without crew chief Chad Knaus at the track, overcame a pit road penalty, fought a car’s handling throughout the night, yo-yoed through the field on pit strategy and ended Thursday night with a 10th-place finish that put him in a playoff spot with seven races to go.
Byron entered the race two points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot. Johnson was collected in a crash and finished 32nd, falling out of a playoff spot. Byron took his place. Byron leads rookie Tyler Reddick by 10 points for the final playoff spot.
Byron did all that with Knaus remaining in Charlotte for the birth of his second child. Keith Rodden, a former crew chief, was on the pit box for Byron on Thursday night.
“We had a crazy night,” Rodden said in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “Car was super loose for William to start. Guys battled hard. Made a ton of adjustments. I mean, we made huge adjustments. It took three to four stops to make the car right.
“Did a little strategy to get out front. Then probably got a little too aggressive on that last (pit) call, taking two. We needed to control the restart and move on and have it run green and it didn’t. You hate to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s a good run for us considering how we started and hopefully a momentum builder as they head into Loudon (New Hampshire on Aug. 2).”
3. Preparing for the unknown
It is less than a month before NASCAR races on the Daytona road course for the first time. The Cup Series races there Aug. 16. Even though it is new to the series, drivers will have no practice before the race.
Another challenge is that the course isn’t set yet. NASCAR is expected to add a chicane off Turn 4 of the oval to slow the cars down the frontstretch before they turn into the infield portion of the course.
Just as challenging is preparing cars for that race. That’s what crew chiefs face.
“It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “You’re not going to have any references really. Certainly there are some characteristics of the Roval, but it’s obviously a bigger oval and the speeds are going to be higher. The infield is pretty unique. In my experience, a million years ago road racing there, it’s a track that’s hard to get ahold of.
“That infield is not the easiest to navigate and get the car hooked up on. It’s going to present some unique challenges. Certainly the speed of the banking, it’s a pretty dedicated true chicane unlike what we’ve run at the Roval. That will be different for everybody to get a hold of.”
Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell, said he expects the inaugural Daytona road course race to be “about as challenging as the (Charlotte) Roval was.”
Cup teams had multiple test sessions before he race weekend at the Roval and then multiple practice sessions that weekend to prepare for the first race there in 2018.
“I think the biggest concern right now, the biggest difference that I see right now from the Roval to Daytona is the entry speed into Turn 1 is going to be huge (into the infield road course),” he said. “I don’t know if we can keep brakes on the car for 10 laps if they don’t do something, but they’re working on it.”
4. Now what?
For the first time since NASCAR returned on May 17, Cup teams will have a Sunday off.
So what to do on a free day during a pandemic?
“You get an idea and go down that path and that doesn’t work,” Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve been going over to the lake a lot and I enjoy that. But it’s like, I want to go somewhere different, I want to take my family somewhere. The kids are fixin’ to go back to school or whatever the heck that’s going to look like. It’s just hard, you know.
“Camping. I love to camp, you know, we camp every weekend anyway. And it’s kind of funny to say, oh, let’s take the bus and go camp somewhere. We were going to do that. Good luck finding a campground somewhere you can get into to do that. I would say we’ll probably end up back over at the lake. It makes the most sense.”
Erik Jones says he will head back to Michigan for his best friend’s wedding. Jones is the best man.
“A little bit different wedding than what we all were planning on, but still going to get to do it,” he said. “Little different, but it’s definitely nice to have this coming up. We’ve been working really hard between the doubleheader races and the Sunday and Wednesday races, it’s really been busy for everybody. For the drivers, for the teams – it’s nice to have an off-weekend coming up.”
Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April, but he has dominated the sprint and midget car races he’s entered this year.
From early May to earlier this week, Larson had won 21 of 38 races in the various dirt track divisions and had separate winning streaks of eight and five consecutive races.
Larson’s friend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also races sprint cars, provided a perspective on what Larson has accomplished.
“I think a lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, he’s going to a lower series and running and dominating.’ That’s not the case at all. These people, the teams and competitors that he’s racing against are the best of the best in those divisions. In the midgets and USAC we battled hard and he came out on top.
“He’s raced throughout Pennsylvania and raced against our Outlaw teams and what he’s doing is tough to do. It’s not only when you look at the feature wins. I’ve been racing sprint cars over the last few weeks and just thinking back to winning heat races, qualifying first, winning features, battling for wins. …It’s impressive.
“And, I don’t think you’ll see many people be able to go do that in a USAC midget, in Pennsylvania, with the Outlaws; there’s just so much that goes into sprint car racing and what him and Paul Silva have built together and the speed that they have is pretty fascinating to watch and kind of unreal.”