Chris Gabehart shines in first year as crew chief

After the dust settled from the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race, the three losing crew chiefs accepted defeat quite differently, as Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens celebrated their second title together.

When Rodney Childers finally emerged from the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing hauler, his answers initially were curt. Sure, Kevin Harvick led the Ford EcoBoost 400 early, but the 2014 champion really had nothing for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in the long run.

Cole Pearn is typically unflappable, but even he couldn’t hide the disappointment of throwing away the opportunity of a second championship in two years. The No. 19 Toyota was the class of the field. Martin Truex Jr. led all but 22 of the first 120 laps. But after the pit road blunder of putting the wrong tires on the car, even an elite driver such as Truex couldn’t overcome the mistake.

Like Childers, Chris Gabehart gambled and lost. Gabehart swung for the fences by taping the nose of Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota. The car quickly overheated, and Hamlin was forced to pit under green. He fell off the lead lap but recovered with a 10th-place finish.

“It’s phenomenal, right?” Gabehart said. “If you just watched the end of the race, he drives through the entire field, unlaps himself, then drives past the leader.”

While all crew chiefs were gracious enough to provide post-race comments, only Gabehart appeared ready to battle another 12 rounds. Maybe he was still processing the moment. After all, this was the first year of calling the shots for the 38-year-old Lafayette, Indiana, native, who started his racing career behind the wheel but has masterfully transitioned to management.

Childers and Pearn had been to the big dance before and won. Both have also experienced defeat as part of the Championship 4. Harvick has advanced to Homestead-Miami Speedway for five of six final rounds since NASCAR changed the format in 2014. Truex has qualified four times.

Gabehart was the newcomer to the fraternity. While like his peers, Gabehart doesn’t accept mediocrity, just reaching this point was quite the accomplishment for a first-time crew chief.

“I said all year long, the difference for us was what I call “green races”—don’t beat yourself, mistake-free, just a nice, clean race, and we would have a shot to win,” Gabehart said. “All year, every race. We beat ourselves, right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in championship races, in playoffs. We just tried to pull off a really difficult plan, didn’t get it done and, unfortunately, as good as our car was there at the end, I don’t know if we needed it anyway.

“But a race team is not going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire. You have got to dance with the fire to beat these guys, and this is what this race team does. But the problem with dancing with it is every now and then you get burned.”

Gabehart accepted responsibility for the call. Admittedly, he was a bit greedy but was hoping to provide Hamlin with a shot.

“I am the leader of this race team,” Gabehart said. “I called an aggressive play. They tried to execute it, because that’s what they do. But this wasn’t in their playbook.

“We had a shot. We were awful. We were awful for two straight stages—and Denny Hamlin said, ‘We are not done. I don’t care. I’m going to drive this car to the end of this race because I believe in this race team. They will get it better.’ And starting that last stage, we got it better. We had a shot at them. We just got burned.”

His driver didn’t blame him for the decision. After all, Hamlin hasn’t even qualified for the final four since 2014. The only time he won more than six races was 2010, when he scored a career-best eight victories. Speaking of career-bests, Hamlin had never posted 19 top fives or 24 top 10s, either.

The only thing Hamlin should be disappointed about is that he wasn't aligned with Gabehart earlier.

“He was going for it, and I don't fault him for that because I've gotten really fast cars--because he goes for it every single week,” Hamlin said of his crew chief. “I just am really excited with the group that we have, what we can do next year and get another shot at it.

“It was definitely not a do‑or‑die situation. It's going to be OK, and we're going to be strong, and I guarantee you it's going to motivate Chris even more than what he already is.”

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