Three days before competing at Pocono Raceway, Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, was prophetic when speaking to RACER.
“I honestly think for this particular team and me being a rookie, I’m so looking forward to going back to a lot of tracks for a second time,” he said. “I hadn’t been with Denny yet or Cup racing in a long time, so building a notebook… I didn’t have one.
“While everyone can say that … their notebook only expands with a package change. So, I feel like we have a little bit advantage over a lot of those teams going back to these tracks for a second time, and hopefully that’s where that little bit of speed can come from.”
Hamlin indeed bested the field in a fuel mileage race for the Gander RV 400 victory, leading 32 laps, including the final 20 in which he perfectly managed both a drying fuel cell and the competition on two late restarts.
Gabehart’s response followed a question about what detail his team needs to refine for a deep run in the playoffs. And when he mentioned speed, it’s “explosive speed” that he’s looking for.
“And it’s not a lot,” he says. “It’s a very small amount. But to go from always being in contention for wins, which I feel like we are when we don’t have any troubles, to the car that is dominating like Kyle’s [Busch] been capable of – Martin’s [Truex] had a little bit of flashes of it and Penske’s had some wins, but mostly Kyle, I think – we need a little more speed.”
Pocono was just the second repeat visit to a track this season, following a return to Daytona earlier this month: a place where Hamlin’s team started the year by winning the Daytona 500 in February.
“Chris has been telling me for months now, ‘You just wait, when I come back I’m going to be more prepared,’” Hamlin told RACER on Friday. “Even races we’ve ran well, he is so into the details and analytics and finding our weaknesses that that’s what makes him a great crew chief. Certainly, I’ve worked with some great ones in the past, but he is a racer, a guy that had been a short track racer all his life, and he sees the deficits we have on the racetrack and he goes to work on them; asking me the right questions.
“The relationship is really working well, it’s growing, and yeah, now we’re about to turn the corner. Listen, everyone is going to be going back for the second time, but I trust that my crew chief is looking deeper in the cracks than anyone else is. Chris is so detail-oriented that he breaks down our weaknesses more so than anyone I’ve ever worked with before, and I’m pretty confident when we go back to these racetracks he’s going to be prepared, and we’re going to be a lot better than what we were the first time around.”
Gabehart is the fifth crew chief Hamlin has worked with in his career, which is now in its 14th full season. The veteran driver has won with every leader he’s been paired. However, Gabehart wasn’t the only new piece added to the No.11 team puzzle this season.
Eric Phillips was brought up from the Xfinity Series to be car chief. Other moves included some shock guys that moved around. All of this was part of an effort to provide the team with depth and experience. Not only has it helped the team, but it’s meant Gabehart can think bigger picture since he’s not had to worry about the specific details of every single part of the week.
Immediately, the difference was clear. Two months into the year, Hamlin had achieved the best statistical start he’s ever had in the series. Two wins in nine starts. Eight top-10 finishes with a stretch of seven straight to put him third in the standings.
A surprise to some, perhaps. Except Gabehart.
“With all the resources that we have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota and a sponsor the caliber of FedEx, driver the caliber of Denny, and then the focus that JGR put on this team in the offseason, it’s not just me, there were five guys that changed,” said Gabehart.
“A lot of effort (was) put into trying to make this 11 team the best it could be, and kind of shake it up, get the chemistry going in a different direction, the vibe different. It’s all those intangible things that can spark greatness I guess – and I wouldn’t put us in the greatness category, I’m too critical for that – but certainly I did not expect us to falter.”
Hamlin, 38, has never been one the sport’s popular drivers; a figure who is misunderstood and perhaps mislabeled. Last year, Hamlin admitted on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podcast some feel he’s too cocky, and that he has a personality fans have never latched onto. That’s from the outside looking in. In the short amount of time they’ve worked together, what Gabehart has learned about his driver that others don’t see or know is how much Hamlin wants to be respected by his peers.
Gabehart gave the example of how Hamlin raced Kevin Harvick on the last lap at New Hampshire and then handled his post-race interviews. Hamlin, he said, is “just a real professional.
“And I think oftentimes Denny gets overlooked because he’s not the loudest guy in the room, but I think history would tell you often times the loudest guy in the room is not the strongest guy in the room. So I think Denny has all the capabilities of getting it done this year, and if things go right, we can do it.”
Overlooked. Same story, different year Hamlin says when asked if the 11 team was being given its just due. That’s something Hamlin has felt his entire career, despite having two Daytona 500s, a Southern 500 and 34 wins – which is more than former champions the likes of Dale Jarrett, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joe Weatherly, and the Labonte brothers.
Even before winning at Pocono, Hamlin’s team sat fourth in points with just as comparable numbers to those who have also been winning and the center of attention.
“We’re doing well, statistics show that,” says Hamlin. “I think media drives the narrative that they like to drive, and that’s OK, but we’re going to just keep working and keep battling for wins. We’ve been extremely, extremely fast over the last couple of months.”
Gabehart doesn’t think about the team being overlooked, because he knows the stats better than anyone, and can easily rattle off at least 100 lost points that would have them at the top of the standings. Even still, the team isn’t as dominant as he wants. All the tools are there, and if the right things go the right way, they can go “all the way to the end.”
That’s the other part of the ‘same story, different year’ – getting all the way to the end and winning the big prize. So far, a championship has eluded Hamlin. The closest he’s come was in 2010, when he led the standings going into the finale, and 2014 when he was part of the inaugural Championship 4.
Hamlin considers himself to be driving better now than ever, and if he knew back then what he knows now, he believes he’d have multiple titles. Changing formats has led to a change in approach, and Hamlin hasn’t put it all together. To win under this system, it’s about performing week in and week out. There can be no mulligans. Gone are the days of cruising to the postseason: playoff and stage points are too valuable.
“I think it pushes us week in, week out to be our best,” says Hamlin. “As time goes on there’s more emphasis of urgency, but I believe that we’re running as good as we have since probably 2012, where we won five races that year. We’ve got the kind of speed we had then, so that’s going to lead us to more victories than not. The reason I’m not too impatient or high-strung is because the performance isn’t deteriorating. If we look over the last few years, we’re getting better statistically in a lot of categories like we were back in 2010 and ’12, when I was winning tons of races. We’re getting back to that form.”
As for Gabehart’s outlook on any emphasis getting Hamlin over the hump, “I think the biggest thing for any of us right now is just to win races and be competitive, and put yourself with a shot to go to Homestead and win. At the end of the day the championship comes down to situations [that] oftentimes you can’t control.
“I can tell you if this team goes to Homestead with a shot to win the championship. It will be all offense and no defense, because it really comes down to just getting the situations to go your way and doing the best you can to attack when the ball’s in your court. I wouldn’t say it’s elusive or weighs on this race, I think week in and week out we just look to win races. It’s simple as that, and Homestead wouldn’t be any more pressure with that philosophy.”
Time will tell if Gabehart’s words will prove to be prescient yet again.