Denny Hamlin had the dominant car in Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but concern over a left-rear wheel changed the course of his race.
Hamlin was the race leader when he came to pit road for a green flag pit stop in the first stint of the second stage. It was a smooth stop for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, but Hamlin reported he felt the wheel was loose, which forced him back down pit road on lap 273.
“It’s really tough to tell in anything, but they looked, and it looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were gone,” Hamlin said after finishing 25th. “So, it’s close enough to where it didn’t matter what I felt, I was going to crash if I kept going. So, had to bring it in and just turned the day upside down.”
There was nothing visible on the wheel to indicate it was loose. However, crew chief Chris Gabehart said the left rear is the most sensitive on the car to be loose because of the load it experiences.
“So, if you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not real because it’s so sensitive,” Gabehart said.
It took time for the team to gather all the footage from the pit crew to review the stop after immediately assessing the wheel. Gabehart said once all the footage was reviewed, there was doubt the wheel was tight.
“It’s not for sure, but there is a doubt,” Gabehart said. “And again, when you’re looking at the video, there are a lot of things trained eyes are looking for, but the left rear, you need all the margin to go in your favor. If it was on the left front or on the right sides and you look at it and you’re like, maybe (it’ll be fine).
“But the left rear has to have load. So, the video was (a) maybe and at that minute, my guy’s won 50 of these things, and he’s been doing it for nearly 20 years. He knows what he feels. So, live on TV, it probably looked uncertain, but I’m certain. Denny knows.”
Gabehart isn’t sure what would have happened if Hamlin had taken the chance and stayed on track. With teams still learning the Next Gen car, there hasn’t been a similar situation to what Hamlin experienced at Darlington. On the previous car, the lug nuts would have worked themselves off, and there is a locking mechanism on the single center-locking lug nut.
“But the driver, again, has been racing almost 20 years (and) it feels loose,” Gabehart said. “His mind says it’s getting worse, and I’m running 180 miles per hour at Darlington getting into Turn 1, your instinct is, I know I’ve got a problem, I got to come. Where would it have went if we tried to run another 10 or 15 laps, would the wheel have come all the way off, I don’t think so because of the retention mechanism. But it may have broke and started really damaging things.
“Either way, I hate it for the team. I hate it for Denny. I hate it for the pit crew. God, they had an amazing day. I think by any metric, they’re going to be a top-three team on pit road today, if not the best. But it’s NASCAR racing and in today’s world, even a fraction of an error is the difference. Today it was and it hurts a lot.
“It hurts to keep losing races these ways where you clearly have a car, in this case, the winning car. Denny had not shown his whole hand, I’m confident. It’s not enough to be winners in your heart; you have to get it all right. Man, it is frustrating to keep missing out on opportunities.”
The driver, crew chief and other team members spent a good chunk of time debriefing on pit road after the checkered flag. Although disappointed in having a potential victory slip away, there was a lot of pride in the car the team brought to the racetrack.
“It’s part of it,” Hamlin said. “Everyone is all in on it trying to do the best they can and one little thing can obviously take you out. It obviously turned our day, but what a great car. Controlled the race and, like yesterday, controlling the pace, whatever the pace I wanted to run, and just didn’t work out.”
Hamlin never recovered the lost track position and then got caught up in a crash with 38 laps to go. Todd Gilliland was squeezed off Turn 4 and spun across the track into Hamlin’s path, and Hamlin was then run into from behind by fellow Cup Series playoff driver Michael McDowell.
Overall, the damage wasn’t too bad after the incident. But whenever the splitter is damaged, it hinders the car’s performance, and it drove significantly worse for Hamlin.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 4, 2023
Hamlin won the first two stages to earn two playoff points. He led a race-high 177 laps.
Hamlin dropped to fifth on the playoff grid with a 27-point advantage on the cutline.
“All the work you put in and stages, regular season, it all matters,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know what the points are, really don’t care. Just I hate losing a race that definitely should have won.”
Gabehart spends a lot of time looking at the numbers, and Darlington will be another one that haunts him.
“As many races as we’ve won together – it’s been 19 – I can tell you, it could easily be in the 30s,” he said. “Well into the 30s. And this is just another one we’re going to have to put into that column, unfortunately.”