Chris Gabehart

Power rankings: NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations

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NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.

There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.

The top driver/crew chief rankings:

1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.

3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.

4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.

5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.

6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.

7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.

8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.

9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.

10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman/Scott Graves (4 points), Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston (3 points), Tyler Reddick/Randall Burnett (2 points), Matt Crafton/Carl Joiner (1 point).

Long: Kyle Busch’s ride of a lifetime makes him forget past losses, if only briefly

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The 25-foot blue-and-white fishing boat is awarded annually to the race winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Every year since NASCAR debuted its playoff format in 2014, the Cup champion also has won the season finale to receive the $125,000 boat.

But with a boat comes the need to name it.

A couple of hours after becoming only the second active driver with more than one Cup championship, Kyle Busch was asked what he might call his new boat.

After pondering it briefly, he suggested “Should Have Been 18” — as in he should have also won the 2018 championship.

For a driver who thought he would have had three, four or five series titles by age 34, it is the defeats like he suffered in this race last year that sting the most.

Busch admitted earlier this week that even if he won Sunday night, he might not be able to enjoy it because his goals are so much higher.

“Trust me, there ain’t going to be anybody happier than me if we cross the finish line first on Sunday, for at least the first 10 minutes,” he said Thursday.

Busch was happy for longer than that but his celebration seemed muted. This polarizing driver who sang on his radio “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” in March at Auto Club Speedway when he won his 200th career NASCAR national series race, simply said “Awesome work. Awesome year. Thank you boys” after capturing his 56th career Cup race and second championship.

“The thing with Kyle,” wife Samantha said, “sometimes he’ll listen to motivational speakers and all that. They say, ‘This is your job and you’re here to win and you’re here to perform and you’re here to be the best, so like congrats when you do it, but know that there’s always another goal.’

“I think that is it with Kyle, “Awesome I did one, now I want two.’ It’s not that he’s not proud of it … he just knows that he always has to keep setting that bar higher to push him and his team. I don’t think (the celebration) was sedate. I think it was confidence. ‘We came here to do what we were supposed to do.’ ”

While he smiled after winning, there wasn’t the unbridled exuberance. Admittedly, Busch was crowded almost immediately after exiting his car on the frontstretch and didn’t get to do his customary bow to the crowd. He also didn’t get to throw son Brexton in the air, which was the first thing the 4-year-old asked him to do when he got to his dad, until about four hours after the race.

Busch had suggested that Brexton get into the bowl of the championship trophy but his son demurred, saying he was too big for that (A few hours later, Busch coaxed Brexton to sit in the bowl for photos). Had Busch won last year’s championship, he could have had matching photos.

Seeds of Sunday’s triumph go back to last year’s disappointment when Busch fought an ill-handling car and wasn’t a factor as Joey Logano passed Martin Truex Jr. late to win the championship.

“I felt like not necessarily the car we brought but some of the approach that we had coming into it wasn’t right for my team, wasn’t right for Kyle, and I wanted to remedy that situation in the best way possible, and that’s to get here, number one and number two, perform at a high level,” crew chief Adam Stevens said.

When Busch experienced a similar loose condition with his car in his opening laps of Saturday’s practice, he had a flashback to last year’s Miami race.

“Oh, hell, here we go,” Busch said he thought.

“And then we worked on it. Adam did some really good adjustments to it early on in practice to get us to the tight side where I was really, really good at being able to rip it off the wall and had good rear security. I was like, OK, now we’re tight but we found both sides of it, so at least we’re not stuck with what we had like we did last year.”

But even if he felt good going into the race, few outside his team did.

The driver considered one of the most naturally talented in the sport, was viewed by many as an underdog. After opening the season with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three wins, and later capturing the regular-season championship, he was inconsistent in the playoffs.

That he also hadn’t won in his last 21 races, while his teammates won nine of those events, gave many reason to question if Busch could challenge Kevin Harvick or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Truex for the crown.

Busch was good Sunday but the race fell his way as the title contenders faltered one by one.

“That whole race went according to plan for a change,” Stevens said.

Truex saw his title hopes fade when his team made an egregious error, mixing a left- and right-side tire team before putting them on the car. Truex had to return to pit road on Lap 122 of the 267-lap race to fix the problem.

“I’ve never had that happen,” he said after finishing as the championship runner-up for a second year in a row. “I don’t even know what to say.”

Truex fell a lap down, later got back on the lead lap and while he would lead for five laps, it was only during a green-flag pit cycle.

“Ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” he said.

Hamlin’s race soured after crew chief Chris Gabehart made an aggressive call for a piece tape the length of a forearm be put on the front grille to change the handling. What it did was prevent enough air from getting to the engine to cool it. The oil temperature pegged. So did the water temperature.

Hamlin feared the engine would blow. His team called him to pit road on Lap 221 while he ran third. Water and steam shot out of the hood like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Hamlin was never a factor after that, finishing 10th.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart.

Kevin Harvick’s team game planned for a late-race caution, something that has happened all but one previous year in the playoff format. This time, though, there was no caution over the last 101 laps. And Harvick had no shot, placing fourth.

That left Busch, who had been so frustrated with his winless drought that when reminded last weekend at ISM Raceway that the champion also won the season finale — and he hadn’t won in five months — he responded by saying: “Thanks for the reminder.”

While Busch downplayed the doubt of others  — “I try to tune a lot of things out,” he noted. — Samantha said such things fueled him.

“You know Kyle likes to prove people wrong,” she said.

He did Sunday. While he seemed subdued, Busch admits there was a moment he was emotional as he joined seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the only current drivers with more than one series crown.

“I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that and I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and was just like, ‘Come on, man, we’ve still got to finish this thing, don’t be such a sis.’ ” 

The best moment for Busch, though, came later. After his wife hugged him, his son hugged him and his brother Kurt hugged him, Busch got back into his car to drive it to Victory Lane with Brexton.

“Brexton actually came to me,” Busch said. “I don’t know if he got the idea from somebody else or if he just remembered it from Keelan (Harvick) doing it with Kevin, and said, ‘Dad, can I go for the ride with you?”

NASCAR approved the request.

“That was really, really special for Brexton, for me and Brexton to be able to take in that moment and go for a ride around the track,” Busch said. “At first he was sitting down on the floorboard, and I was like, You can’t see anything, man. I was like, ‘Stand up a little bit.’

“So he then was kneeling and holding on to the roll bar and stuff, and that was really, really cool. And I was smiling the whole damn time and looking over at him and making sure that he was having fun, enjoying that moment. We were waving at the camera that was in there and stuff. It was a lot of fun. I’m thankful for that.”

And in that moment, there was no thought of chasing five, six or seven championships, no thought about losing the title in 2018, no thought of anything else.

In that moment, it was just a father and a son going on a ride together.

It’s just that this trip ended in Victory Lane.

Who has the edge? Here’s what the title contenders say

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There are no Cinderellas in today’s Cup championship race. The four drivers racing for the title were the best throughout the season.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch combined to win 21 of the 35 races this season (60%), including some of the sport’s biggest races: Hamlin won the Daytona 500, Harvick won the Brickyard 400 and Truex won the Coca-Cola 600.

As they enter today’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, each driver was asked by NBC Sports what gives them the edge over the other three title contenders.

This is what they said:

Denny Hamlin: “I think I possess the want. I can assure you there will be no other driver that wants it as bad as I do.”

Kevin Harivck: “I think we have the full attention of our whole organization in one car, and we’ve been there and we’ve done that. Even when you look at the other three teams, our group has been together a long time; we’ve been on the same team for a long time; we have the stability and the experience as a group within the same organization for six years now. So that stability and experience pays off, in my opinion.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s hard to know. I mean I feel like this of all the years, I feel like this is the most up in the air because Homestead is such a different racetrack than anything we’ve been on this season and one of the great parts about this race and this format is Homestead, we haven’t been here since last year. The tires are different, the cars are different, you don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns, so I think my advantage is my team and our ability to no matter what happens throughout the weekend, our ability to hit it for the race and know what we have to do and not afraid to make changes. Not afraid to swing for the fences. I think that’s our advantage, that’s how we win races. Usually when we win, we don’t have a great practice. We get together and we have serious conversation and the boys go to work and sometimes they hit it out of the park, hopefully this is another one of those days.”

Kyle Busch: Martin’s been really, really good these last few years with Cole Pearn, I’ve been good with Adam Stevens, Kevin Harvick’s been really, really good with Rodney Childers, and of course Denny’s got the new guy on the block with Chris Gabehart, so you know it’s interesting with the crew chief and driver dynamic the way that it’s kind of been but overall it just comes down to how you always work together and it’s anyone’s race really, so I don’t know that anybody has a leg up.”

NBC’s coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1:30 p.m. ET today. Countdown to Green airs at 2 p.m. ET. Race coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET. NBCSN also will have NASCAR Hot Pass that will provide in-depth coverage of the championship contenders at 3 p.m. ET.

Long: Denny Hamlin’s knockout punch sends him to title race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. —Denny Hamlin punched the dash of his car in frustration nine years ago at ISM Raceway, the beginning of a collapse that cost him the Cup championship.

Sunday, he unleashed a flurry of punches after a win at the same track that lessens the pain of that miserable day in 2010 and could catapult him to his first series title.

Hamlin is changing the narrative of a Cup career in its 14th season that features two Daytona 500 victories but numerous playoff disappointments. It comes in Hamlin’s first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.

Gabehart’s demands and Hamlin’s ease with pressure have Hamlin joining Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in next week’s championship race in Miami.

Hamlin is just the second Cup driver since the playoff format debuted in 2014 to race his way into the championship by winning the season’s next-to-last race. Harvick had to win at this track to make the 2014 title race and followed it the next week by winning the championship in Miami.

Two days before Sunday’s race, though, Hamlin sought to temper any disappointment should he fail to advance to the championship, saying: “It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not.”

Gabehart saw the comments and others like them and texted Hamlin.

The message was clear. Expect more of yourself.

“The biggest thing he always keeps pushing is that ‘We’re here to win, we’re not going to settle for anything other than winning,’ “ Hamlin said of Gabehart.

“I’m more of a ‘Let’s not get too high, let’s not get too low.’ I always like to put myself in the middle, to prepare myself both ways. I don’t think he does. I think he only prepares to win, and he’ll deal with it if he doesn’t.”

Gabehart has challenged Hamlin and helped him find areas he can be better, leading to six victories — the most since Hamlin won eight races in 2010 — and his first appearance in the title race since 2014.

“The biggest thing I see,” spotter Chris Lambert said of Gabehart’s influence on Hamlin, “is he holds Denny accountable for everything. It’s not just ‘Well we struggled on restarts or we had this issue. Why do we struggle? How can we fix it? We’ve got to fix it for you to be that elite driver that we know that you are.’ ”

Before the season, Gabehart went over race analytics, a deeper measure of racing statistics beyond results, with Hamlin and Lambert.

“It opened Denny’s eyes,” Lambert said.

Hamlin responded by winning the Daytona 500 to be the first driver to qualify for the playoffs.

But there have been challenges along the way, particularly in the playoffs. Hamlin’s mistake last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway led to a crash that put him 20 points behind Joey Logano for the final transfer spot.

Sunday, Hamlin struggled on restarts. He fell from first to fifth on the restart at the beginning of the second stage. Gabehart talked Hamlin through following restarts, telling him at one point to think of his strategy but don’t overthink things.

Overthinking his situation has been a fault associated with Hamlin since 2010. An ill carburetor forced Hamlin to make an extra pit stop late in that year’s race at ISM Raceway, costing him several positions and points. Instead of having a comfortable lead on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick entering the season finale in Miami, Hamlin had a slight lead. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin in the press conference a few days before the title race, unsettling Hamlin. Hamlin then qualified poorly and spun in the race, losing to the title to Johnson.

Those two weeks have defined Hamlin to some.

“I’ve answered so many questions about that day (at ISM Raceway) and the role that it played in the finish of the 2010 season,” Hamlin said.

The questions may cease now.

In the midst of one of his best seasons, the Texas crash and pressure situation could have undone Hamlin. It would have years ago, but he’s become more comfortable as he’s aged — he tuns 39 the day after next week’s race.

This week, Hamlin shared a house with Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse and friends. Hamlin even admitted to playing tennis at 1 a.m.

“I think a lot of people sometimes think athletes need to be extremely focused, and not that we aren’t, but you’ve also got to balance that with some fun and come to Phoenix and getting to golf and go out and eat nice food is a good way to get your mind off all the pressure you have on Sunday,” Larson said.

While Hamlin was frustrated to see a multi-second lead disappear when NASCAR called a caution nine laps from the finish when John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall, he remained calm and handled the pressure well.

Gabehart kept Hamlin in the lead with what seemed a risky two-tire pit stop for a car that had been so dominant. Hamlin benefitted with Ryan Blaney also taking two tires to start beside him and ahead of Busch and Truex, who each were on four fresh tires.

Then it was up to Hamlin to win to advance. Hamlin followed Gabehart’s guidance, plotted his strategy and didn’t overthink it.

“I wanted to choose the top (lane on the restart) simply because I thought if I went into Turn 1 side‑by‑side, I’d rather be on the high side,” Hamlin said. “I thought that I’d seen Kyle get a pretty good run in the traction stuff on a few restarts. I saw it in a few restarts in the Truck race, as well.

“I just thought if I was going to be at a deficit of grip versus my competition, I had the option to go up there and get more. It was going to be a longer distance, but I had the option to go up there and get the grip they didn’t have.

“So I think that was the reason I did it. Luckily it all worked out, for sure. Especially I think having (Blaney) under there with two tires there, as well, gave me a little buffer there. If it was Kyle, I’m not sure I would have held him off, but I would have damn sure tried.”

He didn’t have to worry. Now, Hamlin is off to Miami to have fun and race for a championship.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Hamlin said. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is to ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete.  It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Just as Gabehart would say.

Expect more of yourself.

Penalty report from Texas Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued $10,000 fines to three Cup Series crew chiefs for having one unsecured lug nut on their cars after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The crew chief include: Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota; Mark Hillman, crew chief on Parker Kligerman‘s No. 96 Toyota; and Luke Lambert, crew chief on Daniel Hemric‘s No. 8 Chevrolet.

NASCAR also issued an indefinite suspension to Michael Barraclough for violating its substance abuse policy.

There were no other penalties.