The most excited person to see Martinsville Speedway this weekend might be Chris Gabehart, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief.
Hamlin goes into Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) fighting for his playoff life, sitting below the cutline by 17 points. It’s not a mathematical must-win situation for him, but he’s approaching it as such if he wants to race for a championship next weekend.
Having to fight from behind is not what Gabehart wanted to be doing, but the fact that it comes down to the Virginia short track is practically the best-case scenario for his team and driver.
“Fortunately for us over time, we’ve started eliminating racetracks where we don’t feel that way, but definitely, Martinsville would be very picturesque in a lot of ways,” Gabehart said. “We’ve done everything but win there together. In the last three or four races, we’ve led the most laps or scored the most points, scored the most stage points. Any stat you want to talk about, we’ve done it.
“We’ve been statistically the fastest car. That doesn’t mean anything – you’ve got to get to the checkered flag first. But man, what a great way to do it. Certainly, our team has been knocking at the door.”
Martinsville has been a great place for Hamlin over the years. Although he’s not won with Gabehart calling the shots, Hamlin does have five victories at the racetrack, and his average finish is 10.3 in 35 starts. He’s led over 2,000 laps at Martinsville, and that includes dominating the last two fall races — leading a combined 306 laps in 2021 and ’22.
Neither of those races ended as planned. Alex Bowman kept the No. 11 out of victory lane in 2021 when the Hendrick Motorsports driver spun him from the race lead in Turn 3 with eight laps to go. A year ago, Ross Chastain’s video game move — what became known as the Hail Melon — came at the expense of Hamlin, who was knocked from advancing to the championship race just yards from the finish line.
In 2019, Gabehart was paired with Hamlin for the first time. The two have won 19 races together (out of Hamlin’s 51 total career wins).
A championship has been elusive, though. Hamlin is often described as one of the greatest drivers the sport has seen who doesn’t have a championship. It’s all that is left for the 42-year-old who has won three Daytona 500s, three Southern 500s, a Coca-Cola 600 and the Bristol night race.
He’s has made the playoffs in 17 of the 18 years he’s been a full-time driver. In the elimination era, four times Hamlin has made the Championship 4. The pursuit of a championship has become “a grind,” Hamlin admitted weeks ago, and Gabehart feels it too.
“I want it for him, and I want it for my team because we are a championship-worthy team, but I just can’t help but recognize for what it is, and it is winning one race,” Gabehart said. “The grind – I’ve felt this every year we’ve made it to the Championship 4 … I’m telling you, it’s instantaneous release. All pressure comes out of the shoulders. The whole week is a joy because you’re championship-worthy. In today’s NASCAR Cup Series format, in my view, that’s really what they crown. They crown championship-worthy by making the final four. Then it’s one race. It’s one set of circumstances.
“You can be running down Martin Truex Jr. with 25 laps to go (in 2021) in second and David Starr blows a brake rotor, and the caution comes out, and it all comes down to a pit stop, and it’s turned on its ear. Well, does that make us less championships worthy than Kyle Larson in that situation? Not at all. It’s a circumstance. It’s entertainment. It’ll always be entertaining.
“It’s fantastic; I love it. But it’s not really a body of work; it’s circumstantial. The championship is just not what it used to be and Denny knows that; he’s a pro. And that’s OK. It’s not a knock on it. I think the format is better than it used to be. But it doesn’t necessarily crown the most deserving team. Getting to the Championship 4 does. That’s a body of work that’s 35 weeks long, and I think it does a pretty good job of typically getting it right — barring random power-steering failures. So that’s really the goal every year.”
Finally winning the championship would be nice, too.
“Oh yeah,” Gabehart said. “Everybody wants to be a champion, and there’s no question my team deserves it in terms of their year-in, year-out performance, and he’s a member of my team — Denny, the driver. No question that’s what you want. Like I said a couple of months ago, it can’t be the focus. It can’t be results-driven. It can’t be the result that motivates you. It won’t be enough.
“You have to do it for the love of the game. You have to do it because you love to do it. You love the process. You love the Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, all the way through Sundays. Win or lose, you love the process or the pursuit of perfection, and you wake up every day trying to do better than the day before. If you do that, you’re worthy of a championship. Will you get it? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. That’s not even why you’re doing it. It’s not about the results.”