Adam Stevens

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.”

Pocono gives Kyle Busch two chances to end winless streak

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When one thinks of race tracks that Kyle Busch is exceptional at, names like Bristol, Phoenix and Richmond are at the top of the list.

But only in recent years has Pocono Raceway, where the Cup Series will hold two races this weekend, emerged as one of his better tracks.

In his first 25 starts on the 2.5-mile triangle speedway, Busch went winless and led just 186 laps. But in his last five starts, beginning with the June 2017 race, he has three wins and has led 274 laps. In the last seven Pocono races he’s earned top-10 finishes, which is the longest active streak in Cup. Denny Hamlin is next with three in a row.

So with two Pocono races set for this weekend, it’s a good opportunity for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to snap the 13 race winless streak that’s plagued the start of his season. His last trip to Victory Lane came in the 2019 season finale at Miami, when he clinched his second Cup championship.

This is the deepest into a season Busch has gone without a Cup victory since 2017 when he won race No. 21. That race was the June visit to Pocono.

“(Pocono’s) evolved with Adam Stevens being the crew chief since 2015,” Busch said in a media release. “We’ve run really well there. It’s a good track for us. I’ve learned a lot from my teammate Denny Hamlin who’s won there (five times), and certainly working with Martin (Truex Jr., who has two wins) and his guys has also brought on some new, fresh ideas which help.”

Busch said “talking is kind of the best resource” for getting better at a track like Pocono, in addition to evaluating data and driver technique.

“Being teammates with Denny for this long (13 seasons), it’s (lent) itself to myself improving at Pocono and Martinsville, places like that, and him improving at places like Bristol and Charlotte from myself. It’s a good take there. And then having Martin now, having him on board, who is really good everywhere, as well, has definitely brought a good basis to our team.”

That flow of information between teammates has played at least some part in Joe Gibbs Racing having won the last five visits to Pocono.

But this is the first year Pocono has hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup events, in the same weekend. Typically, roughly two months transpired between Cup visits to the Pennsylvania track. Now teams will have less than 24 hours to recover from a 325-mile race on Saturday and prepare for a 350-mile race on Sunday.

“I think you will have to make some changes to your stuff,” Busch said. “The first race, there’s only going to be the Truck Series rubber, it’s only 60 laps, so there’s just going to be a little rubber down. Then, we’re going to put a lot of rubber down with our race. Then you’ll have the Xfinity race the next day, and then you’ll have our (second) race. Over the course of all those miles, I think the main similarities between the two days is going to be just that – they’re a day apart rather than a month apart. There’s a difference between the Pocono racetrack when it’s a month apart, but when it’s day one to day two, there are going to be big differences in day one to day two, so you have to take a lot of different things into account.”

Busch said Pocono’s three-turn layout requires teams to make “compromises.”

“Every time you go there, it’s a bit different,” Busch said. “The bumps change, the characteristics change. Where the bumps are. Are they getting bigger? Are they getting worse? Is there more? That Turn 2 tunnel turn is always a culprit for the bumps, and the harsh winters up there really change the racetrack. Then, what happens in Turn 3 where the wind is blowing and stuff like that, is always kind of a convoluted piece to Pocono, and how you get through Turn 3 versus Turn 1 versus (Turn) 2.”

How much is Busch willing to conserve himself and his car Saturday in preparation for the longer race the next day? Busch is factoring in the field invert, which will take the top-20  finishers from Saturday and reverse them for Sunday’s starting lineup.

“Kind of depends on what’s going on and what’s happening,” Busch said. “If you’re struggling along, or pit strategy throws you off and there’s three (laps) to go and you’re back in 15th, maybe you want the pole for the next day. We’ll see what happens with that. Obviously, you want as many points as you can possibly get.

“We’ve run real well there the last few years. We definitely want to keep that going and try to get a win. If you’re up in the front, or up in the top five or whatever, you’re going to try to get as much as you can get there and not worry about the next day. You’ll just refocus the next day.”

NASCAR penalty report from Martinsville

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NASCAR on Friday issued three penalties to Cup Series teams for violations incurred Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway:

  • Lee Leslie, crew chief of the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford, has been issued an L1 penalty, fined $25,000 and the team has been assessed with the loss of 10 owner points for an at-track penalty (race equipment does not meet applicable specifications during pre-race inspection). The No. 51 car failed pre-race inspection five times.
  • Alan Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.
  • Adam Stevens, crew chief of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.

NASCAR also announced:

  • Team member Zach Yager has successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program and his suspension has been lifted.
  • Team member Josh Young has been reinstated.

There were no other announcements.

Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast and more

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After four races on tracks more than 1 mile in length, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s race.

NASCAR’s first short track race of the season concludes a two-week period where the Cup Series will have run five times.

Kevin Harvick won the first race in this stretch May 17 at Darlington Raceway. Denny Hamlin won the May 20 Darlington race. Brad Keselowski won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Chase Elliott won at Charlotte on Thursday night.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, drivers will have the opportunity to run one pace lap down pit road before the green flag for a pit road speed check. If a driver stops in the pit box for any reason, pull over or slow down, they will start at the rear of the field.

COMPETITION CAUTIONS: Lap 20 and Lap 60.

SERVING PIT ROAD PENALTIES: If a driver is serving a penalty under caution, they must travel the length of the combined pit roads. If they are serving a penalty under green, they may only travel the length of your respective pit road. … If a driver is under the Damaged Vehicle Policy, under caution they must travel the length of the combined pit roads or a 15-second penalty will be assessed for improper entry or exit.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.

LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.

TO THE REAR: Gray Gaulding (failed pre-ace inspection twice) and Ryan Preece (failed pre-race inspection twice).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Will Bristol shake up dominance of a few teams?

Matt DiBenedetto: “No margin for error” at Bristol Motor Speedway

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch “get mojo back” at Bristol?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, “I just like to race”

Chase Elliott’s “Sent it, for Judd” in Charlotte Cup Series win

When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

Where are they now? Catching up with Casey Mears

 

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, dropping Busch from eighth to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that, and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip there, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race after contact cut a tire and forced him to pit under green and lose two laps. His 29th-place finish only better than his 34th-place finish in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, with limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest for nearly a week until the race June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1 (traction compound), he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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