Denny Hamlin was caught off guard in August 2018 when Joe Gibbs Racing management pulled him aside during the race weekend at Watkins Glen International.
In the midst of the first winless campaign of his full-time Cup career, Hamlin was told “we’re thinking about making a change.”
Hamlin’s gut reaction?
“I’m like, ‘Oh (expletive), with me?” Hamlin recalled Wednesday.
Joe Gibbs Racing mentioned replacing crew chief Mike Wheeler, who has handpicked by Hamlin.
“They’re like, ‘No, we think we have somebody that’s ready to come to Cup that’s driven, that really has a chip on their shoulder to prove that he thinks he’s the best and he wants to go prove it. And we think it’d be a good match for you,'” Hamlin said.
That man was Chris Gabehart.
He would become the orchestrator of Hamlin’s return to championship contention. Since their pairing in 2019, Hamlin has earned 12 victories, tying him with Kevin Harvick for most wins in the series. Entering this weekend’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN), Hamlin has six wins.
“I admit for a few weeks, I was very much against it,” Hamlin said of JGR’s decision to go with Gabehart. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I’d worked with (Gabehart) a little bit with Dave Rogers. And (Gabehart) is a short track guy. … I did have good conversations with him, but I just didn’t know. I was fearing the unknown. But once I sat down and had lunch with him one day, I knew that he was he was going to push me to get the best out of me and that’s what he’s done.”
A few weeks ago, Gabehart credited Hamlin’s leadership in allowing an atmosphere that let him put together a winning team.
Gabehart told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio 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.”
Hamlin shared his side of how their relationship was cemented.
“When he came in here, even though I’ve been here for 13 years, he allowed me to just say, ‘You know, I understand that this is the team that was built around me for many, many years,'” Hamlin said. “But I told him just go hire the best people available. You know, friendships aside, friendships all matter. But I want to win more than anything.
“You don’t need to tell me about every personnel change that you make, every crew member that you change in and out, just do it. And I trust you that you’re going to put the best people that you know available on my team.
“We have a tremendously deep team when it comes to our mechanics … And it’s showing with the performance that we put on the racetrack and not only that, I’m not a nuts and bolts guy. I don’t question him on the setup.”
Setup is more important in a season that’s seen the departure of practice and qualifying amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s also important because the sharing of SMT data among teams has “crushed” any advantage Hamlin had at Richmond Raceway, his home track where he’s won three times and has 13 top fives in 27 starts.
Richmond is the second race in the opening round of the playoffs. Hamlin starts seventh.
“Basically I left my notebook on top of the car and it spread all over the racetrack and every driver picked it up,” joked Hamlin. “(Data sharing’s) been a benefit for me at other racetracks. But certainly I felt like when I went to Richmond, went to Martinsville, I had a tremendous advantage over the field. Not an unfair advantage, just a skill advantage.
“The way I drove those racetracks helped me perform and when other drivers got to see that, it really kind of opened things up and it took away any advantage that I might have on the driver side. Now we’ve had to rely on just putting a better race car on the racetrack than them, which is very, very difficult.
Now, Hamlin said the “gold standard” at Richmond and Martinsville is his teammate, Martin Truex Jr. Truex swept last year’s Richmond races and has won the last two Martinsville races.
“It’s now my job to go back into that data, dig in it and figure out why is (Truex) beating me,” Hamlin said. “So it’s time for me to kind of regain some of that information back. Especially since so much has changed within the cars and the aerodynamic package over the years. I just got to make sure I’m not leaving anything on the table.”