o’reilly auto parts 500

NASCAR America: How crew chief’s gamble propelled Hamlin to Texas win

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Denny Hamlin may have won Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, but his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, may have been the biggest winner of all.

Gabehart’s gutsy pit calls, not to mention talking Hamlin down and keeping him calm after issues with an uncontrolled tire, speeding and running out of fuel, were the biggest keys and turning point that allowed Hamlin to take the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to victory lane for the second time this season.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, our analysts – Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett – all agreed that Gabehart’s signal calling atop the pit box was as crucial as what Hamlin did behind the wheel.

It takes good strategy, takes good execution and the 11 recovers from all of that,” Letarte said matter-of-factly.

Burton went one step further, pointing out that it wasn’t just good strategy, but the race was long enough that it gave Gabehart the ability to gamble at times to optimize that strategy.

Sometimes you have to gamble to get track position right now,” Burton said. “Maybe that hurts you later, but you get that track position and cautions lay the way where you never give it up.

Those are the types of decisions you have to make right then and there. … What I saw Sunday was track position was king. And whatever you had to do to get track position at the right time of the race – which may have been a gamble, may not have been something that maybe didn’t work out – but you had to try it right then and just hope you caught the cautions right.”

One of the most difficult decisions Gabehart had to make was not to take tires late in the race – something that many of his crew chief counterparts chose to go in the opposite direction.

It was a very difficult decision to wrestle with (not to take tires),” Gabehart admitted during a post-race interview. “For our car and the performance and everything we were seeing, it wasn’t just a track position oriented race because we found a way to give that away a lot in the race.

But minimum time on pit road and for our scenario each time, it just made the most sense and fortunately it worked out.”

While Hamlin may have privately questioned Gabehart’s strategy, it proved spot-on.

(Gabehart) didn’t roll Denny under the bus for speeding, they may have had an out of gas issue, then they had the uncontrolled tire,” Letarte said. “But the simple fact is they continued to work together and more importantly the crew chief kept taking swings, he wasn’t out of the game.

He always had a plan. They may not always work, but I love a crew chief with a plan.”

Gabehart was indeed that man with a plan and Hamlin and the rest of the No. 11 team were the big beneficiaries.

Aric Almirola fights through stomach bug for sixth straight top 10

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While it wasn’t a race-winning effort like Brad Keselowski at Atlanta last month, Aric Almirola fought through a stomach illness to manage an impressive showing in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Without a relief driver on standby, the Stewart-Haas Racing piloted his No. 10 Ford to a seventh-place finish.

Almirola felt “tired” and “really, really depleted” after his sixth consecutive top 10, a career-best streak.

“It was a long night last night. I didn’t sleep at all, throwing up with a stomach bug,” Almirola said. “I haven’t been able to keep anything down, so I’m just really hungry, and I’m really tired.”

Almirola joins Keselowski at Atlanta and Austin Dillon at Auto Club Speedway in notable driver performances this year despite illnesses. Dillon finished 10th for his first top 10 of the year.

While Keselowski and Dillon had relief drivers on standby, missing Sunday’s race wasn’t an option as far as Almirola was concerned.

“We don’t get to call in sick,” Almirola said. “That’s the challenging part of our job occasionally. The flu or a cold or a stomach bug pops up and you’ve got to fight through it.

“I’m really proud of everybody on our Smithfield Prime Fresh Ford Mustang.  We had a good car and track position there and strategy and pit stops and stuff, and we still got out of here with a top 10, so that’s six in a row. I’m proud of that.”

What drivers said after the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

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Denny Hamlin, winner: “Our car was really, really fast. We obviously saw that. Once we got out front, we were able to pull away from the pack a little bit.  Got a little bit loose when we were racing our teammates in the 18 and the 20. So wasn’t able to be as aggressive as I was earlier in the race.  We had a super fast car. That’s why we won.

“I missed pit road under green, that cost us three or four seconds, as well.  I don’t know.  We tried every way we could to give it away, and we found a way to do it with this FedEx Camry.”

Clint Bowyer, finished 2nd: “We had to unclog ourselves.  Once we unclogged ourselves, we were really good. Our Mustangs were fast all weekend long.  Took a while for our Mustang to get good.  This Rush Trucks Center Cummins car was a little off all weekend long.  I was pretty nervous coming into the race.  (Crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz), and everybody made some good adjustments, and then lean on your teammates.

“When you only have an hour’s worth of practice, it pulls you away from something you were trying, anything out of your wheelhouse.  Just kind of put us all back together with all four cars at Stewart‑Haas. All in all, hey, I wanted to catch him (Hamlin) bad.  He just come out of the pits way too far ahead of me.  Wasn’t much I could do about it.”

Daniel Suarez, finished 3rd: “It was a solid day, for sure. Overall I want to just say that I’m very proud of Stewart‑Haas Racing, everyone that makes this possible.  We’ve been working very hard to make our race cars better. Definitely we’re heading in the right direction. It’s the second week in a row that all Stewart‑Haas cars are in the top 10.  That’s something very good.”

Erik Jones, finished 4th: “It was good. We had a really good Craftsman Camry, but I put us behind there at the start getting myself in trouble spinning out. I was in a weird spot with fuel and what we needed to do. We needed to take more fuel than everybody else and ended up losing the lead there on that green flag cycle. It’s a good day, but it’s disappointing at the same time. We knew we had a car that could’ve won and to not capitalize on that is frustrating, but it’s also nice to get on track and have some good runs again.”

Jimmie Johnson, finished 5th: “We are definitely moving in the right direction. The car was good in clean air and had a lot of speed in it, so I think we have found kind of center for our cars and what has to happen. It was a little evil in traffic, and I had a heck of a time on green flag restarts but really worked hard to get it up underneath me and tightening the car up a little bit for us to race. Ended up having great pace and decent drivability, so we are working in the right direction. I am just so proud of everybody on this Ally team. We’ve had a lot of pressure on us, and everyone has stepped up and (are) getting it done.”

William Byron, finished 6th: “it was good. We had a gun break on the first pit stop. I felt like we were running in the top five at that point. And then we got back to the top five later in the race, and I ran about fifth or sixth. It just felt like we were right there all day. It was a little bit free after that last green flag pit stop and that hurt us a slight bit. But, overall it’s good and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Aric Almirola, finished 7th: “I’m tired.  It was a long night last night.  I didn’t sleep at all, throwing up with a stomach bug, so I’m really, really depleted.  I haven’t been able to keep anything down, so I’m just really hungry and I’m really tired. … We don’t get to call in sick.  That’s the challenging part of our job occasionally.  The flu or a cold or a stomach bug pops up and you’ve got to fight through it.  I’m really proud of everybody on our Smithfield Prime Fresh Ford Mustang.  We had a good car and track position there and strategy and pit stops and stuff and we still got out of here with a top 10, so that’s six in a row.  I’m proud of that.”

Kevin Harvick, finished 8th: “Our day was a disaster.  Our car drove terrible, and that pretty much sums it up.”

Kurt Busch, finished 9th: “It was tough today. We had a right front (tire) go bad. So, somehow we’re not getting enough heat into the tires to get a good qualifying run and not lose spots on restarts, but then the car comes alive once it has heat and then that was burning up right fronts going too far through them. So, it was kind of a weird day; really confused about a lot of different things with the dirty air and the grip level. But, all-in-all to be another top 10, I’m really happy for the GEARWRENCH Team and everybody that’s working on the car. We really need to get into some big detail and debrief and figure out what we can do to be better.”

Kyle Busch, finished 10th: “The car just got loose there. We had made an adjustment to help with the loose issue, but it went the other way for some reason – so something to learn from there. We were in a good position there though to get the win today with our Interstate Batteries Toyota, but it just wasn’t meant to be. We will go on to next week and get back on it at Bristol.”

Ryan Newman, finished 11th: “It was a good run for our Wyndham Rewards Ford.  We just didn’t have everything we needed.  I fought track position there for a while, but the guys did a good job.  We gained some spots in the pits, so it was a good day in general and our best finish of the year, but we still have some work to do.  We’ll keep working on it.  We’re just off a little bit on speed.  When you’re only lifting once it’s hard to make up much.”

Austin Dillon, finished 14th: “We had a strong Realtree Chevrolet this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. After qualifying in the top five and showing speed in practice on Friday and Saturday, we were able to run in the top five through much of Stage 1. The biggest issue throughout the race was keeping up with the balance of the car. We could hold our own in clean air, but we were too loose on our last run. We led laps in the final stage before pitting for fuel with 12 laps to go. These RCR and ECR Chevrolets have had speed all year, and we put up a good fight today.”

Joey Logano, finished 17th: “Something came apart in the bracing underneath the hood, I believe, and then the hood started flaring all over the place.  The hood was gonna blow off the car if we didn’t get a caution, so we were able to fix it but went down a lap and there weren’t enough cautions to ever get the lucky dog.  We rode around in the lucky dog spot for a while, but never got that.  That really altered the handling once we had all the bearer bond on the front.  The car got really draggy and got real tight, but we won a stage.  I was proud of the speed that was in the car.  Our car was capable of winning the race, but didn’t have the opportunity to take advantage of it.”

Ty Dillon, finished 21st: “My team built a fast Twisted Tea Camaro ZL1. We had strong practice sessions and had a great qualifying effort. I was really proud of these guys for all of their hard work in earning the ninth-place starting spot. We were pretty good at the start of the race. I was just a little tight with being on the splitter. Our Stage 1 strategy ended up not working out the way we thought it would, and that put us behind a bit. We made up as much ground as we could, but unfortunately the cautions just didn’t fall in our favor. We didn’t get the finish that I know we deserved, but we’ll take the positives of having seen major improvements in our intermediate track program with this new package. We’re making gains and seeing results every week.”

Daniel Hemric, finished 33rd: “After our strong qualifying effort with the No. 8 Bulwark FR/Wayne Workwear Chevrolet, clearly this was not the result we had hoped. The car was strong all weekend long and felt good in the pack. We were too free in traffic, but (crew chief) Luke Lambert and the guys worked on the handling each time we came to pit road. I made slight contact with the wall off Turn 2 late in the final stage and that eventually caused the right-rear tire to go down. The guys did all they could to clear the tire, but the rubber wrapped around everything under the car and we lost a lot of laps getting it fixed. We will keep our heads high and look to rebound next week at Bristol Motor Speedway.”

Brad Keselowski, finished 36th: “Something broke out of nowhere.  We weren’t going very fast or anything, and something in the back of the car broke and it won’t go.  It’s one of those really important parts, as Kenny Schrader would say.”

Ryan Blaney, finished 37th: “A part broke off and leaked all the water out, so that’s the way it goes. It just seems that’s the way this season is going. We’ve had a shot to win pretty much every race, and something happens. That’s getting old, but the car is fast. That’s the bright side, but I’m kind of tired of looking at the bright side. I want to actually start finishing where we should. It’s just one of those days.”

Denny Hamlin overcomes pit woes to win Texas Cup race

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Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, fighting back from two pit road penalties in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

The Daytona 500 winner earned his second victory of the season. It is the 33rd win of his Cup career.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 45 laps and beat Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson.

Hamlin had to overcome penalties for speeding on Lap 64 and an uncontrolled tire on Lap 173. He also missed pit road under green during a pit cycle in Stage 1 and had a slow pit stop after a tire changer dropped a pit gun.

“Just a fast car … that could really pass anyone in the field,” Hamlin told Fox. “That means a lot. It definitely was a different type of race here, trying to draft and everything and trying to get out of everyone’s way.”

Hamlin is the first driver since Brad Keselowski at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014 to win a race after two pit penalties.
“I told them when I was making my way through the pack, ‘I know this really sucks because we’re probably not going to win with the fastest car,’ ” Hamlin said. “It was fun passing all those cars. It really was.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Joey Logano

STAGE 2 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Kyle Busch led a race-high 66 laps but was forced to pit with 53 laps to go after making contact with the wall. He bounced back to finish 10th. Busch has finished in the top 10 in all seven races … Erik Jones claimed his second top five of the year after he spun on Lap 15 … Clint Bowyer earned his second top five and best finish of the year … Daniel Suarez earned his first top five through seven races with Stewart-Haas Racing … Jimmie Johnson claimed his first top five of the season and his first since the 2018 Coca-Cola 600.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Team Penske. The cars of Brad Keselowski (mechanical), Joey Logano (pit penalty, hood problems) and Ryan Blaney (overheating) all finished outside the top 15Kyle Larson finished 39th after he wrecked in Stage 2

NOTABLE: Jimmie Johnson led 60 laps, topping his total laps led in for the 2018 season (40 laps) … Joe Gibbs Racing has placed three cars in the top 10 in every race this season and at least one driver in the top five.

WHAT’S NEXT: Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on April 7 on FS1

Denny Hamlin fastest in final Cup practice at Texas

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Denny Hamlin posted the top speed in the final Cup Series practice session Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hamlin recorded a speed of 186.987 mph.

The top five was completed by Kyle Busch (186.342 mph), Ryan Blaney (186.278), Kurt Busch (186.091) and Jimmie Johnson (186.047).

Johnson, who will start from the pole, had the best 10-lap average at 184.366 mph.

Most of the top speeds came late in the session when a large group of cars ran together in essentially race conditions.

“Just trying to get around each other and figure out what your car is in balance and traffic,” Hamlin told Fox Sports 1. “You certainly don’t want to have anyone in front of you, that’s for sure. It’s extremely tough to get around someone, unless they bobble and get out-of-the-way. There’ll be plenty of passes in and around the field because people are going to get out of shape following someone else. But once you’re out front, man, you can just take off and go.”

Click here for the speed chart.