Could this be the year Denny Hamlin finally secures his first NASCAR Cup title?
On Sunday, Hamlin collected his sixth trophy at the Tricky Triangle and tied Jeff Gordon for most wins all-time at Pocono Raceway. He scored his 41st career Cup victory to secure 19th place on the career win list, breaking a tie with Mark Martin.
With his fourth win of the season, Hamlin, 39, leads the tour in the “W” column and is on pace to match his career-high mark of eight victories set in 2010.
"We're in contention every week, and that's all you can ask for as a race car driver,” Hamlin said during his post-race celebration.
Hamlin’s confidence stems from a deep belief in Chris Gabehart—and the trust is mutual. The former race-car-driver-turned-crew chief took over the reins of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota last season. Gabehart led Hamlin to a six-win season and just his second appearance in the Championship 4 round since the elimination Playoff format was introduced in 2014.
Together, Gabehart and Hamlin having a winning percentage of 21.3—roughly every fifth race.
“I have a good enough driver to win every single race every single weekend,” Gabehart said. “When you have that level of trust... I've not got to work with that as a crew chief with a driver like that. That's nothing against the guys I worked with in Xfinity. They didn't have the level of experience and résumé that Denny Hamlin had when I came to him.
“It made it easy to sit down and go to work, and say, ‘Hey, we need to figure this out together. I don't need you to change. I need you to listen.’ I'm going to point things out. No different than me on the crew chiefing side setup‑wise. I pay attention to what my teammates do.
“At the end of the day we trust in our own abilities, focus on our own abilities to make our race cars better or drive our race cars faster. I think that's our strength.”
The driver and crew chief have bonded through similar blue-collar backgrounds. The 39-year-old Gabehart was born in Lafayette, Indiana, about an hour northwest of the Brickyard, and grew up in Louisville. Hamlin, also 39, spent his formative years south of Richmond, Virginia.
“You cannot know what it's like to starve, if you've never been hungry,” Gabehart said. “It's that simple. You do not know what it's like to go without if you never went without. Denny Hamlin went without in racing. He knew what it was like to have nothing, to wonder where his next race weekend was going to come from. He knew he would need a big break to make it.
“What you find out of athletes like that or crew chiefs or engineers, whatever, basketball players... when their back is against the wall, they know what it's like to fight, because they have fought for their lives before. Not just fought for a win, fought for their lives.
“You have to have that to be great. Being good is one thing, but you have to know what it's like to fight out of a corner when that's your only choice. I think Denny certainly has come from a background like this. He takes a lot of pride in that and he should. This is not easy. He's become great at this level, and he did it by climbing the ladder one rung at a time.”
Both racers clawed their way through the short track ranks, using their modest upbringings as catalysts to earn opportunities in NASCAR.
Hamlin’s break came when J.D. Gibbs discovered him driving Late Models at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2004. Later that year, JGR auditioned Hamlin at Darlington in what is now the Xfinity Series. Gibbs signed the 24-year-old driver to a full season the following year—and he has been driving for JGR ever since.
Gabehart started in go-karts at 10. The third-generation racer won several national titles through the World Karting Association. Gabehart became the first member in his family to attend college and graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2005.
During his late-model exploits—which included a CRA Super Series title in 2007—Gabehart was introduced to Tom Busch, Kyle and Kurt’s father. After a short stint as an engineer for Kyle Busch Motorsports Late Model effort, Gabehart was recruited in 2012 to work on Kyle’s Cup car.
In 2016, Gabehart was named crew chef for Erik Jones’ title run in the Xfinity Series.The pair went on to dominate the competition, winning four races and barely missing out on the championship behind JGR’s Daniel Suarez. After nine wins with variety of drivers on the NXS tour, Gabehart was recruited to oversee the No. 11 Fed EX team last year.
Together, he and Hamlin earned six wins and a shot at the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway—but fell short due to an overheating problem because of too much tape on the grille. What did Gabehart learn from that experience?
“The first half of last year, it was build a notebook, build a language with Denny and the engineers, mechanics, figuring out how to optimize a weekend,” Gabehart said. “While we did well going into those weekends the first time, certainly it's our job to come out better. We didn't do that last year. Now we have a notebook built up. I think it shows. I think the first half of our year is a lot stronger than last year's first half, even though it was good.
“Moving forward, what's it going to take to get back to Phoenix (in the Championship 4)? You just have to keep executing. The one thing I love about where the 11 team is at right now, our biggest competition is ourselves. Martinsville, we had an awful race, beat ourselves. You look at the Coke 600. We had a winning race car there. We ran second to Chase Elliott the following (Wednesday) at Charlotte, but we had a much better car at the Coke 600. In all honesty, didn't get to show it because we beat ourselves. Phoenix beat ourselves. Running in the top three, wrecked, didn't get a chance to show what we had there.
“What I love about where our race team is at right now is it's a competition against us. Execute, execute, execute. If you can do that, you have a shot to win. That's all we can ask for.”