Crew chief Chris Gabehart laid the blame squarely at his own feet for Denny Hamlin falling out of championship contention during the final run at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On what was supposed to be his final pit stop on lap 208, the No. 11 team put a large piece of tape on the front of Hamlin’s Camry. Hamlin had pitted from the second position behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch.
Very quickly, the car began to overheat, forcing Hamlin back to pit road with 46 laps to go. Falling off the lead lap, he dropped to 19th. The race went green to the end, though, and while Hamlin did get back on the lead lap, he could salvage only a 10th-place finish.
“We beat ourselves just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” said Gabehart. “We just tried to pull off a really difficult play and didn’t get it done. Unfortunately, as good as our car was there at the end, I don’t know if he needed it anyway.
“But a race team’s not going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire. You have to dance with the fire to beat these guys, and that’s what this race does. The problem with dancing with fire is that every now and then you get burned.”
Hamlin was sure his engine would have blown up if he didn’t pit. All the gauges on his dash went to 100 degrees, and by the time Hamlin came back down pit road, water was spewing out of the right side of the hood.
Another reason Hamlin admitted he pitted is had he stayed out and lost the engine, he could have impacted the championship for his teammates. Kyle Busch won the race and his second championship while Martin Truex Jr. finished second.
“Proud of trying to get after it there. I mean, we were a stone’s throw to Kyle, and at the end of the runs, we would run back to him,” said Hamlin. “At that point of the race, our car woke up, I woke up, it was fast, and so it was going to be fun. I was really looking forward to running those last 50 laps and having the challenge of, ‘Can I get him? Can I go get him?’
“But just didn’t really get that chance.”
Hamlin didn’t go as far as to say he would have won the race. However, given that he was within a few seconds of Busch and hadn’t yet used all his tricks (according to Hamlin, you can’t show them too early in the race), he was getting ready to give it all he had.
“Empty the tank, and if we crashed, we crashed,” said Hamlin. “But who knows? The 18 was very good, let’s not discredit that; but I would have loved a shot at him.”
Gabehart, a first-year Cup Series crew chief, said he wished he could have the decision back and had not gotten greedy.
“I think we were at least going to get there, which is all you can ask for: Line up at the end with a shot, and we had a shot,” said Gabehart. “We were awful for two straight stages, but Denny Hamlin says, ‘We are not done. I don’t care; I’m going to drive this race car all the way to the end of this race because I believe in my race team [that] they will get it better’. And, starting that last stage, we got it better and had a shot at them … and we just got burned.”
“It has nothing to do with the pit crew,” Gabehart continued. “I am the leader of this race team. I called an aggressive play; they tried to execute it because that’s what they do. That’s what their job is. And it doesn’t mean they’re going to make it every time, but this is not in their playbook. What we tried to pull off right here is trying to win Homestead and letting the emotion of the moment get the best of you trying to do that; and we just got too aggressive, plain and simple.
“That’s OK. That’s on me.”
Hamlin started from the pole but led only two laps Sunday. During the daytime, he was hardly a factor, but when the sun began to go down, he began making some noise. Gabehart felt the race and adjustments were coming to them, and while Hamlin said he was initially frustrated in the car when the overheating issue popped up, he knew his crew chief was going for the trophy.
“He’s going for it, right? He was going for it,” said Hamlin. “It’s just the way it is. We’ll go to next year and win a lot of races. We’re going to win a lot and hopefully get ourselves back in this position again, learn from it, and see what happens.”