The Cup regular season is winding down, and so are the quirky race weekends created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
This weekend at Dover International Speedway will see the last of three scheduled Cup doubleheaders. The series holds races on the 1-mile track Saturday and Sunday afternoon (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
The two doubleheaders that preceded it, held at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, have been the Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin show, as they finished first and second in three of the four races.
After Hamlin beat Harvick in the first Pocono race, the order flipped the next day. Earlier this month at Michigan, Harvick swept the weekend, but he beat Hamlin in Race No. 2 by just .093 seconds.
They enter this weekend with Harvick and Hamlin leading the series with six and five wins respectively.
And through 23 races, there’s been no trace of mudslinging between the two teams. That’s how Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s second year crew chief, prefers it.
“I think that’s the neat part about what we’re fortunate enough to do at two great organizations like Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas (Racing),” Gabehart said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.’ “We’re able to compete at sport’s very top level with the best resources and people are the biggest resource. So the best people at the very pinnacle of stock car racing. So when you’re fortunate enough to make it to that level as crew chiefs, engineers, drivers, you’re very thankful for that, I know I am.
“In doing that, you come to appreciate just how hard it was to get there and then those that you compete against, you admire their same situation and you realize just how hard they worked to get there, too. At that point, you’ve both been so fortunate and accomplished so much that it’s really more about the competition itself and appreciating each team’s ability to push the other one higher.
“And I know that’s how (Harvick crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and I look at it. To say that we don’t compete fiercely … is certainly not true in terms of the level of competition. I mean, we’re fierce competitors. But you know, when we shake each other’s hands afterwards, it just comes from a real understanding just how fortunately lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing at this level.”
Childers had nothing but praise for Gabehart and his team following Harvick’s win in the second Michigan race. Afterward, Childers met up with Gabehart to give him a message of congratulations.
“Obviously both drivers are doing a great job,” Childers said that night. “Everybody is bringing great cars to the race track. It’s been a fun little battle all year.
“To have a past relationship with Chris from the (go) karting days and stuff, we’ve always got along good, we respect each other a lot. … They’re a bunch of classy guys. We just try to keep it fun and keep each other motivated, keep pushing as hard as we can.”
In their first two years together, Gabehart and Hamlin have led the competition. After Hamlin’s winless 2018 season, they’ve claimed a series-leading 11 wins together. That’s one more victory than Harvick and Childers.
Through 23 races this season, Hamlin has placed first or second in 10 of them (43.5% of the time).
Gabehart credits Hamlin’s leadership in allowing an atmosphere that let him put together a winning team.
“So much of life is about timing and whether or not you’re ready for a moment or situation as a driver or crew chief or just in your personal life, right?” Gabehart told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think for Denny and the transitions he had went through over the last few years in his career and then you know, some of his personal life, and me doing the same from a crew chiefing perspective in the Xfinity Series and then coming over here and I think all of us just meshed at the same time, and we both had the same goals and aspirations and we were ready for each other, I guess is the best way to say it.”
Gabehart said he was “proud” and “thankful” of Hamlin’s “willingness” to let a rookie crew chief “come in and make this race team the way I saw fit without second guessing me or questioning me, or putting the type of scrutiny on me that he could have as a veteran, as a successful veteran in this sport. He did nothing of the sort and it was that level of trust that really allowed the foundation to be built and is the reason we’re where we’re at today. Denny, I think, would tell you that I have established myself as leader of this race team, but it was his leadership in the very beginning that allowed it all to be the case.”
This weekend Hamlin will get two attempts to earn his first Cup win at the “Monster Mile.” He has five top fives in 28 starts there, including a second-place result in the 2018 playoff race.
Entering Dover, Gabehart said the doubleheaders so far have “actually been kind of fun.”
“I like the aspect of the doubleheader from a competitive point of view, because I can’t tell you how many times we’ve all left a racetrack and said, ‘Man, if I could just run that race over and we do this or we do that, that car would be where it needs to be and we could have run so much better.’ Well, now you get your chance, right, because it’s the exact same car one day later and you’ve ran a race, you have all the data, you know where you’re lacking. Can you turn around and turn it into a better day?”