Friday 5: Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart are NASCAR’s dynamic duo

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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.

William Byron (24) finished 10th and moved into the final playoff spot Thursday night at Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson and Chase Elliott. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“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.”

5. Streakin’

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.”

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.