A race day in the life of Chris Gabehart and the JGR No. 11 team

Chris Gabehart has his left arm behind his back, holding one of the three radios connecting him to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. His right knee is bent, placed on the seat of the pit box, and he’s crouched as he looks to his right down pit road for the purple and white Yahoo Toyota Camry.

It’s a position Gabehart holds as he takes over on the radio for Hamlin when he’s five pit stalls away. Gabehart counts him down from five until he’s stopped in their stall, the crew goes to work, and the command is to leave on the jack. It’s not until Gabehart has cleared Hamlin out of his stall that spotter Chris Lambert takes back over.

Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, then sits down and is right back into the data. To his right, engineer Ryan Bowers climbs back atop the pit box after helping roll and grab tires. To Gabehart’s left is engineer Chris Minogue, who climbs back up after assisting with the air hose.


Hamlin goes on to finish fourth in the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway. A finish Gabehart and company will gladly take, overachieving in a long day fighting for every spot but seemingly being stuck in the sixth to eighth place position. (Hamlin’s average running position was indeed eighth.)

“It’s a very fortunate feeling to have, in that I’m disappointed with fourth because we’re so used to being able to contend for wins,” Gabehart says. “But realistically, we didn’t qualify quite as well as we hoped, and the balance wasn’t quite where we needed it to start. The next thing you know, you’re 12th, and it’s so hard to pass out there right now that 12th is tough to come by. It’s tough to recover from.

“Then we got that damage midway through Stage 2 – it was pretty significant damage. It took our margin from being thin at best to have a shot to win to, OK, now we just have to salvage the day.”

A quick recap of Hamlin’s race and finish is pretty straightforward. However, if this were a video, we’d hit the rewind button right about now and look for all the details missed during the first viewing.

Race day in the life of a team is like that. It’s all in the details, and the work that goes on that not many see or know the extent of or perhaps even know that goes on. RACER was given full access by the No. 11 team under the condition that proprietary information or communication was not published.

Darlington’s race day began at 11 a.m. ET when Cup Series teams had access to the haulers one hour before the garage officially opened. Gabehart and his crew walked in with their competitors and by 11:06 a.m. ET, inside the No. 11 hauler, screens and laptops were fired up.

There is data and tabs to different sheets of information everywhere. On the left side of the hauler are three screens mounted on the wall; Gabehart and his counterparts also have individual laptops. There is an additional screen and workspace on the right side. On the back wall is a television screen split into a Multiview for the TV broadcast, radar and other information.

In the hours leading up to the green flag, this is where Gabehart, Bowers, Minogue, and others spend the most time. Whether it’s Darlington or any other race weekend, the team will have spent five to eight hours after leaving the garage Saturday working on race-day simulation after what was learned in practice and qualifying.

One of Gabehart’s main focuses, as the clock clicks closer to the garage opening and hands laid on the car, is the tires to start the race. After making the rounds to ensure everyone is aware of the change, Gabehart is back in the lounge for more looks at all the information.

It’s here where adjustments are decided on, there are conversations about how they want to start the race, and even the code words are decided. (Fun fact: Yahoo replaces the one labeled Sport Clips, given the weekend’s partner.)

Hamlin and Gabehart come together for the first time on pit road. John Harrelson/Motorsport Images

When the team descends on the car beginning at Noon, all final adjustments are put into place. The tires used Saturday come off the car (since the cars were put in the garage and covered after leaving pit road Saturday), and a new pair goes on. Regan Smith of Fox Sports spends a few minutes talking to Gabehart shortly before 12:30 p.m. ET.

In the background, the team is still going over every detail. It’s a game of inches and angles, so the car gets jacked up and how far the tires hang out is measured. Where the jack goes under the car is also crucial regarding the ride height, so adjusting the bolt where the jack will hit is also of focus. Don’t forget the engine warmup, taping the hood pins and wiping everything down.

The work was done by 12:45 p.m. ET, just 45 minutes after the garage opened. The car is then pushed to pit road under the watchful eye of a NASCAR official as another is waiting for it to be parked on the grid in exactly the right spot, and that might be backing up and moving it over by just a hair.

Next it’s time for lunch, beginning to get into race uniforms, and taking care of anything else in and around the hauler. Gabehart leaves his screens to lead the team meeting as the clock heads toward 2 p.m., explaining how they’ll approach the stages and tire strategy. The performance of the No. 11 team has been amongst the tops in the series all season, with Hamlin sitting tied with William Byron for the most wins (3).

The meeting ends with a hands-in moment. Matt Philpott, the interior specialist who you would think never sits down when in the pit box because he handles air pressure adjustments, is called to give the rallying cry. Philpot goes with “55” — the career victory Hamlin is chasing.

No sooner has the chant ended than the hype music within the hauler goes up. Now is the time for any last-minute preparation. The laptops get packed up, and radios clipped to belts to make the walk to pit road 15 minutes before driver introductions begin. It’s there where Gabehart sees Hamlin for the first time on race day. He and Philpot are the last to interact with the driver before the window net goes up and the car rolls off pit road.

“Every week is always something a little bit different,” Gabehart says. “Typically, it’s a focal point and some sort of last-minute pump-up. In this week’s case, I just reminded him that the toughest opponent is the racetrack and that sounds cliché, but at Darlington, it’s not. So, I just wanted to remind him of that and then understand it was going to be a grind and we got his back, and we got a great shot to win.

“Anytime you can bring Denny to Darlington, you’re going to have a shot to win. With cars as fast as we’ve have them and the pit crew as good as we have, it’s about executing a clean day, and trying to get through this track unscathed is difficult to do.”

A pit box is nothing short of impressive, and each team approaches the setup differently. Gabehart, Bowers and Minogue are in the front row with their laptops and five other screens. Above them hangs three television-sized screens, each split into Multiview. There is the Fox Sports race broadcast, radar, timing and scoring, and then data pages that, unless you know what you’re looking at, are foreign and overwhelming.

All of it together, however, is where success originates. The information so good, and the team so well prepared, it was right on the lap of when Hamlin was told how long it would be before the leader hit traffic. It’s also part of why, along with their seventh-place starting position, Gabehart knew it would be a grind of a day to get to the front.

“Which is odd at Darlington because there’s normally so much capability to find a way to the front on a long run or a good pit cycle or whatever,” Gabehart says. “But once you get cycled out, it’s hard to make a lot of hay and everyone knows it, so they are really on the gas on restarts. Pit road was phenomenal; the cars up front were on it all day, so you couldn’t even gain a lot on pit road.

“So, to start Stage 2 where we were and it’s only a 400-mile race, not 500, I knew that it was going to be, let’s try to grind and get into the top five. And if we have a couple of restarts go our way and gain a spot or two on pit road, you’re never out of it. We’ve proven that at Richmond earlier this year. But it was definitely going to be a workman’s day.”

The No. 11 team is in pit stall 13 at Darlington, eight stalls past the start/finish line. Carson Hocevar’s team is pitted to their right, with an empty box on their left. From atop the box, a look to the left goes down the frontstretch into Turn 1 before the cars disappear behind the roof of the media center. A look to the right goes up the frontstretch to the exit of Turn 4.

Gabehart, Bowers, and Minogue smoothly repeat their processes through every pit stop. Gabehart calling Hamlin into the box, which he’s done since they started working together, is another detail that could make a difference.

With so much that goes on in the time it takes to go those five pit stalls, Gabehart wants to be the one with his hand on the bottom should anything happen. Something like Hamlin sliding long or Gabehart calling an audible at the last second or giving some piece of information Hamlin needs at the last second. Plus, Gabehart has a good view of Hamlin blending into traffic.

The three radios Gabehart, Bowers, and Minogue wear are for good reasons. While fans can listen to their favorite driver through the NASCAR website or mobile app, or a Racing Electronics scanner, the public doesn’t have full access nor hear how there are multiple channels going at once.

On the channel that goes out to the public, fans will hear their favorite driver, crew chief, spotter, or whoever else comes over the channel. The voices come one at a time.

But within the team, the voices in your ear come from multiple places: Channel 1, Channel 2 and the intercom. The latter is an internal channel where those in the war room of the race shop connect. Gabehart also keeps NASCAR and the race broadcast in his ear. If that isn’t enough, the team will also scan the competition.

While the day didn’t go entirely to plan, Hamlin still led a lap and maintained the Playoff points lead. Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

It takes three hours and 12 minutes to complete the 400-mile event at Darlington Raceway. Hamlin’s day is made more difficult on lap 129 after running into the back of Chris Buescher in Turn 2. The field bottlenecked after contact between Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney, who were three-wide with William Byron.

“It definitely hurts it and the best way I can explain it to you is everything we do is to the thousandths of an inch,” Gabehart says of the nose, which he and Hamlin were quick to look at after the race. “You look at any one thing and you say, ‘Man, is that damage really that bad?’ but you’re stacking pennies to make a dollar everywhere. It was pretty significant.

“We really did not fight tight for balance until that damage. So, it was definitely enough, and on the car potential side, it knocked some speed out of the car and upset our balance.”

Despite not contending for a victory at a place where Hamlin has run so well before, not all was lost. Hamlin led one lap, which was all that was needed to make it 17 consecutive races he’s been at the front. He also continues to lead the series in playoff points, with 18. Gabehart doesn’t go into detail, but admits the expectations from the simulation work leading into the race didn’t go quite as hoped.

“We definitely were trying a few things in this race with an eye toward the fall that ultimately, I don’t think, panned out the way we wanted,” he says. “Most people would tell you if their sim predicted Sundays perfectly, they would win the race, right? So, there’s a lot that goes into it. We had a good day but not quite as good as I wanted.”

Over six hours after it left the garage, the Yahoo Toyota is back and going through inspection. It’s all hands on deck pushing the car to the three stations. At the underbody scanning, heights and weights area, Gabehart and his team are in line behind Rodney Childers and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. Gabehart and Childers share a handshake and conversation, and Gabehart even lends a hand, pushing their car up the ramp.

Once those tasks are completed, the car is loaded up. It’s been a long, regimented, meticulous day. One that the team will repeat soon enough as the season rolls on.

Story originally appeared on Racer