Crew chief shoulders responsibility for decision that cost Denny Hamlin in NASCAR championship



Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

November 17, 2019 09:57 PM

Crew chief shoulders responsibility for decision that cost Denny Hamlin in NASCAR championship

An application of tape proved to be too much for the No. 11’s engine to handle

Al Pearce

Matt Weaver



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Motorsport Images – LAT

Denny Hamlin lost a chance to win the NASCAR Cup championship after overheating following a pit stop for tape.

Four times Denny Hamlin has gone into NASCAR’s season-ending weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway grasping for the Cup Series championship trophy. Four times he’s flown back home to North Carolina without it.
In his Rookie of the Year season of 2006 he went to south Florida tied for third in points. He finished the race third and was third in final points behind Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
In 2010 he went into the final race with a 15-point lead over Johnson. Almost anything short of a disaster might have been good enough for the title. But Hamlin ran poorly and finished 14th. The result? He was third in final points, 38 behind Johnson.
In 2014 he was among the Championship 4, along with Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. He finished the race in seventh place and slipped to third in the final standings, behind and Harvick and Newman.
And Sunday night, after running relatively well during the opening two stages of the 267-lap race, he faded to a 10th-place finish. He finished fourth in points behind two-time champion Kyle Busch, one-time champion Martin Truex Jr. and one-time champion Kevin Harvick.

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The post-race question was a reasonable one: of the four disappointing finishes, was Sunday night’s the worst because of the lofty expectations and unusual optimism he brought into this one?
“I don’t know,” Hamlin said shortly after the 400. “It’s tough to say. I feel like I did all I could…. so probably not (the most disappointing). I don’t think I could have done a better job. I don’t think I could have    I didn’t leave anything out there. For the first half we just weren’t fast enough. We weren’t handling very good. All of a sudden it went nighttime, and we took off. Suddenly I perked up and got a little more and was thinking that we’ve got a chance.”
After starting from the pole by points (qualifying was rained out), Hamlin hung around the top-10 most of the daytime portion of the race. But he didn’t lead until laps 168-169, the only time he led all night. Race winner and JGR teammate Busch and race runner-up and JGR teammate Truex were far better. Championship 4 contender Harvick, in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, was better than Hamlin, but never in the same class as Busch and Truex.
Looking for more speed, Hamlin’s crew gambled with more nose tape to create downforce. It worked for a while, but not long enough. Before he could close on the leaders, his Toyota began to overheat. He went a lap down when he made an unscheduled stop at lap 222 for tires, fuel and to remove the extra tape. Once he went a lap down, his championship hopes all but vanished.
“It just didn’t work out,” he said. “Like I said last week, definitely I was going to come in here and do the best I could and live with the result either way. I definitely feel like I couldn’t have done anything different. Certainly, we got a little aggressive there and it cost us. But I mean, (crew chief Chris Gabehart) has been really aggressive and won us races. He saw an opportunity to really add some speed to the car, and it just didn’t work out.”
The “new” Hamlin — more accessible, more openly optimistic, more positive, less dour, more pleasant, more mature — sees nothing but good things ahead. He’s among NASCAR’s all-time winningest drivers without a championship on his resume, a gap he intends to close.
“It’s been just a great year,” he said. “(JGR) won 19 races as an organization, the most in this era. That’s a good thing. In the world where we just keep getting more common with everything: common pit guns, common this, common that…  JGR continues to set itself apart. That’s the people and the effort they’re putting in. That really says a lot about the organization.
“I’m excited about next year, I really am. It’s not like I’m going to go through the off season upset or sad. It’s like, I’m looking forward to having the momentum that we took through this year with a first-year crew chief, and we’re going to win a lo…  like a lot … next year. I think we’ll have another opportunity. There’s no question.”

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Crew chief accepts responsibility
As it pertains to the ill-fated pit stop for tape that led to Hamlin’s decisive overheating issue, crew chief Gabehart says he accepts all responsibility for everything that happened afterwards.
It was his decision to apply the tape, that much tape, and to accept the risk that came with that decision.
The buck stopped there.
“I’ve said all year long that the difference for us will be to have green races,” Gabehart said. “Mistake-free races. We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs. We just tried to pull off a really difficult plan, didn’t get it done and unfortunately as good as car was 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 that’s what this race team does. And the problem with dancing with it is every now and then you get burned.”
In hindsight, Gabehart wishes he hadn’t been as aggressive with the tape, because they were faster than the leaders during the final run after Hamlin came back down to pull the tape off.
Gabehart wishes he had held off on that decision, calling it one influenced by the emotions of the moment.
“Well in hindsight, as good as our car was on that last run, no, we didn’t need to,” Gabehart said. “But in the heat of the moment, when you’re fighting for your life, you want every last a hundredth of a second. So that’s the nature of what we do. We try to get every last time for a second. And that’s what we did there.
“That’s not on my crew, or my guys. That’s on me.”
And Hamlin wouldn’t have it any other way.
“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.”
And ultimately, this was the kind of call he expected Gabehart to make — even if he doesn’t know if it would have worked out.
“I don’t know. It remains to be seen, right?” Hamlin said. “At this race track, you can’t use all the tricks until the end because it puts your car at risk but I was getting ready to give it all I had and empty the tank and if we crash, we crash.”

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