Veteran crew chief Chris Gabehart wasted little time in talking with a dejected Denny Hamlin after his untimely departure from the 4EVER 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, walking over to where his driver sat on pit wall, placing his left arm over Hamlin’s left shoulder, speaking into his right ear, then patting him on his back and walking away.
Gabehart knew his 42-year-old driver needed to quickly shake off the 30th- place finish that left Hamlin 17 points below the cutline with one race remaining to determine this year’s Championship 4. Six times since making his Cup debut in 2005 Hamlin has been in contention for the series championship. He’s placed second once, third on three occasions and fourth twice.
Throughout this season, Hamlin has possessed a swagger, a confidence that this year could finally be the one when he comes away with the coveted NASCAR Cup Series championship. His 51 career wins place him 13th on the all-time Cup victory list, but he’s the only one in the top 13 without a Cup Series championship.
However, there’s more to Hamlin than statistics.
“Over the last few years as he becomes a veteran in his twilight years, he’s become very comfortable in who he is, what he’s good at and what he’s not,” says Gabehart, who is in his fifth season as Hamlin’s crew chief. “I think it’s very important to understand what he’s not because when you truly embrace the things that you’re weak at … then it makes it easy to work on your weaknesses.
“A lot of younger drivers and younger team members, younger humans, have a hard time understanding in their field what they’re good at and what they’re bad at and how to work on it. I really think Denny has become very aware of his strengths and weaknesses and is very comfortable in them and it really makes it very easy for us to get better because of it.”
Gabehart cites Hamlin’s strengths as “clearly understanding the situation, paying attention to detail … every second of every lap every minute of every day from a competition perspective.”
Gabehart says Hamlin is also willing to listen and be coached even in situations where it may not be natural for him. He notes every driver has weaknesses, generic things, such as restarts, the ability to learn how to pass on road courses, or just getting speed on road courses.
“Denny is very humble and recognizes those things and goes to work on them,” Gabehart says. “I think we’ve seen a lot of improvement in a lot of those areas this year because of it.”
At Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin has racked up five victories, 18-top five and 24 top-10 finishes. His average finish is 10.3, he’s led 2,226 laps and he’s completed 97 percent of the laps he’s run, failing to finish only two races. However, the Virginia native admits that ever since he wrecked Chase Elliott at the tough half-mile in October 2017, he’s not popular at his home-state track. The boos Hamlin receives during driver introductions don’t bother Gabehart.
“You have to understand what we’re doing here,” Gabehart says. “It’s entertainment first, sport second. You hope that they run neck-and-neck, but sometimes they don’t. It’s important to give everybody something to cheer for in order to be emotionally invested so they’ll tune in every week. Often where people are concerned that’s heroes and that’s villains. The key is you have to matter enough to the audience to be one of either, either a hero or a villain.
“It’s our job as a race team to be relevant. To put our driver in a situation where he can use that pedestal to either become a hero or a villain whatever the audience chooses.”