DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin’s damaged car, packaged with the disappointment of another race gone awry, had been loaded into the Joe Gibbs Racing hauler Sunday night at Darlington Raceway when crew chief Chris Gabehart surveyed the scene and the status of the No. 11 team a third of the way through the Cup season.
“I am convinced that we are the most dangerous … 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “I am convinced that we are the most venomous snake laying in the grass. Any week we can jump up and turn this thing on its ear. We could have won last week. We could have won this week.”
A race that was playing into Hamlin’s hands veered when a slow pit stop put him deep in the field and into the path of a multi-car crash. Hamlin was left with his second consecutive 21st-place finish after having one of the stronger cars.
“We’re all frustrated,” Gabehart said. “Gosh, it’s hard. I don’t know what you do other than go race next week. Again, the speed and the ability of everyone on the team is not lacking. When it is, that’s what’s really hard to fix. That’s a long-term march and slog. … We’re not there, but gosh it’s frustrating to go through it week in and week out for sure.”
Darlington marked the fifth consecutive race Hamlin finished 18th or worse. Other than his win at Richmond in early April, he’s not scored a top-10 result this season.
So, how can a team that has fewer top 10s than 22 drivers this year be one to watch? It’s what this team does even in those races that end with bad results.
Sunday, Hamlin had to start at the rear because the underbody was damaged in qualifying and needed repairs. He was in the top 10 by Lap 57 and finished the opening stage seventh.
The second stage showcased the team’s strength. Hamlin was seventh when Gabehart pitted him on Lap 134 ahead of many other cars. That helped Hamlin gain two spots when the green-flag pit cycle was complete.
A caution at Lap 168 for the incident involving Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch led the field to pit road. Hamlin was fourth at the time. His crew gained him a spot, moving him to third. Hamlin finished Stage 2 in fourth.
During the caution at the end of that stage, Hamlin’s crew got him off pit road first, allowing him to go from the back of the field at the start of the race to be in control of the event. He led 42 of the next 51 laps.
Hamlin’s race unraveled under caution for Alex Bowman’s incident. Hamlin was seventh because a few cars in front had yet to pit. He exited pit road outside the top 15 because of a slow stop. Gabehart said that a tire changer did not reset the pit gun to tighten the lug nut after removing it to change tires.
Mired mid-pack, Hamlin’s car was damaged in the nine-car crash after the restart.
“As maddeningly frustrating as this is, I will take this to running 12th every week and not knowing how to go forward,” Gabehart said. “… To overcome adversity, start in the rear at Darlington — a one-lane racetrack — and graining control of the race at the start of Stage 3, I’ll gladly take this. I’ll gladly take a car and team that’s capable of lapping the field at Dover the way we were over 12th and searching (for speed).”
Another challenge remains for this team. Gabehart is facing a four-race suspension for a wheel coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing will appeal the penalty. Gabehart understands there’s a good chance he might not be at the track soon.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” he said. “Morale is important. Right now we’re like Denny says, waiting for the anvil to drop on our heads. It’s just where we’re at. Again, the speech is simple, the message is simple. We have the ability to win every week from the pit crew to the driver to the crew chief to the engineers to the mechanics, top to bottom, we have the ability.
“This is no longer a points system, it’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not. It’s defined at getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is try to gain some more playoff points and get hot when it’s time. We have the ability to do that.”
Getting there won’t be easy just for all the issues that have plagued this team. Hamlin said he felt he had the best car at Las Vegas before he missed a shift and broke the drivetrain, ending his race. He led 67 laps at Dover and won the opening stage before his wheel fell off. He led 42 laps at Darlington and scored a season-high 11 stage points before the slow pit stop and then crash.
All the issues the No. 11 car has suffered, Gabehart noted, has made an impact on the team.
“We’re all so gun-shy and snake bit right now that inevitably you’re performing at your 90-95th percentile in those instances because psychologically you’re waiting on what’s next,” he said. “Once you break through that barrier, I think you’ll really see top end capability, and I’m just waiting for this team to do it.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie smiled Sunday night after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth, giving Stenhouse back-to-back top 10s for the first time since joining JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020.
“It’s nice to finally have a few breaks go your way,” Pattie told NBC Sports. “I think the engineering group, we’ve settled on a couple of things we were working on and it’s proven out to be decent the last two weeks. We’ll just continue that route.
“Obviously, a one-car team it kind of puts you behind the eight ball (with information gathering).”
Stenhouse said after finishing second last week at Dover that the team had been “trying to come up with a new philosophy” for some tracks.
Pattie explained the change.
“Some of it was approach,” he said. “The cars are so much different, so much to work on, aero and mechanical also, that we’ve had to — ‘Let’s step back and make it simple, don’t trick ourselves’ — and we run better.”
Pattie said the team worked on the car throughout the night. The No. 47 car benefitted from pit strategy. Pattie called Stenhouse to pit on Lap 229, making him among the first to pit. Stenhouse was 14th before pitting. He was fifth when the green-flag cycle ended.
A caution at Lap 256 allowed Stenhouse to pit with the field for the last stop of the race. He went on to finish eighth behind winner Joey Logano.
“A one-stop strategy (in the final stage) was probably the fastest on paper but our car fell off so bad after 32, 34 laps, we just made the decision we were going to two-stop it right on our numbers and see what happens,” Pattie said of the team’s evolving strategy.
“Luckily, a caution fell whenever it needed to and was running top five and that was the lucky break you get.”
It’s what the team has been needing.
“Finally something goes your way,” Pattie said.
A day before finishing a season-best third at Darlington Raceway, Justin Haley noted the progress his Kaulig Racing team has made this season.
“Just got to take the good weeks and maximize those and take the bad weeks and learn from them,” he said.
Kaulig Racing and Haley have done that. Haley has scored four consecutive top-15 results, placing 14th on the dirt at Bristol, 12th at Talladega, 11th at Dover and third at Darlington.
Haley’s finish Sunday was his best in Cup since his 2019 win at Daytona. Sunday’s result was the best for Kaulig in Cup since AJ Allmendinger’s win at the Indy road course.
“The last three weeks means a lot,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. “… It just means a lot to Kaulig Racing to come and contend.”
Haley benefitted from pit strategy, but when he was in position, he took advantage to score a top-five result.
“I don’t think we had a third-place car, but we’re an organization that can have a good strategic day and get up front,” Haley said after the race.