Chris Gabehart is the rookie of the Championship 4 crew chiefs. One might not know that, however, considering Gabehart’s relaxed attitude and approach.
“Fantastic, man,” replied Gabehart, asked how his first championship weekend has been after final Cup Series practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“No. No, no, no, no,” Gabehart said. “Pressure was last week at Phoenix. This is enjoyment. This is fun.”
Gabehart and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team are playing with house money this weekend, according to driver Denny Hamlin. The team beat the odds in the elimination race at ISM Raceway to earn their championship opportunity, keeping alive what has been a career year for Hamlin.
This season is the first Gabehart and Hamlin have worked together. Before taking the reins and guiding Hamlin to a second Daytona 500 victory and now a total of six wins, Gabehart had just one race under his belt as a Cup Series crew chief. In 2017, he filled in for Mike Wheeler during the fall Richmond race.
So Gabehart is new to championship weekend while Hamlin makes his second title race appearance. Meanwhile, teammates Cole Pearn, of Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 team, and Adam Stevens, of Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team, have been familiar faces.
Pearn has been a Cup Series crew chief for five years. This year is his fourth championship race appearance. Stevens, also with five years’ experience, has yet to find out what it feels like to not be in contention on the last weekend of the season. And, for Rodney Childers, he and Kevin Harvick are here for the fifth time in six years.
“Those three teams are the very best in the sport. Clear cut, week in, week out, for years now,” said Gabehart, who was also once Busch’s late model crew chief. “You got other guys that can jump in there this week or that week and compete, but those three teams have established themselves as the elite.
“So, for us to be in the mix with them is an honor. And certainly on top of that, (battling) with Kyle — it’s fun. It’s just a lot of fun.”
With qualifying canceled in favor of getting a 50-minute practice session in after rain washed out most of Friday’s activities, Hamlin starts from the pole. Third quickest on the speed chart in final practice, Hamlin was the best in the 10-consecutive-lap average.
Gabehart has been insistent since last Sunday night that nothing will change in their approach this weekend. It doesn’t matter that this is the championship. It doesn’t matter that Hamlin has momentum from a recent win. Nor does it matter that Joe Gibbs Racing has three of the four title contenders.
Despite no experience of dealing with this weekend, what Gabehart and his team have done for 35 races has worked. He’s not about to stray from that now. Preparation will be the same, and Gabehart has no problem with Hamlin going out and socializing or doing whatever on the eve of the title fight.
“We’ll talk a little bit of strategy, but honestly, right, wrong, or indifferent, I don’t know that we’re going to do anything a whole lot different than we’ve done all year,” said Gabehart. “I don’t want to say it’s just another race because it’s not just another race. But really it is. I think it’s about doing what got you to this point. We’ve clearly shown the ability to execute when needed, and I don’t anticipate this race being any different. I encourage Denny (and the team) to go out and enjoy the moment. I did that Sunday night before we left Phoenix.
“To compete at this level, the very, very top against the best is something you shouldn’t take for granted and enjoy the moment. We’re going to do what got us here all year long. My mechanics are; my pit crew is. They’re going to do what got us here, but in that, you’ve got to stop and take a little extra time and enjoy what it is we’re doing here.
“I fully anticipate Denny will do that tonight and have fun. He’s responsible about it. This isn’t the Denny of 10 years ago; he knows what he can and can’t do maybe a whole lot better than he used to. It’s business as usual for us.”