By: Ashley McCubbin
As Chris Gabehart says about himself and Denny Hamlin, “For us, making the #Championship4 is the goal, winning the championship is the gravy.” Though on Sunday, that almost did not happen.
Through the first two stages of the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, it seemed they were having a typical day that he used to at the paperclip in running inside the top-five in the thick of the action with a solid points cushion. However, an issue on pit road in the third stage set them back and brought forth a lot of drama.
Ultimately, Hamlin was able to battle through the traffic en route to an 11th-place finish, securing his place in the Championship 4 by a single point over Kevin Harvick.
“That’s why you have to tune in and watch all 500 laps,” Gabehart told POPULAR SPEED. “If you would have tuned out after the first two stages, I would have told you you couldn’t go possibly better than the 11 (Hamlin), collecting 18 stage points, the 4 (Kevin Havick) not getting any, us extending our cushion to the 2 (Brad Keselowski). Realistically it was a fantastic two stages for us.
“We had an issue on pit road. We started making our way back, then kind of plateaued. 4 got back on the lead lap. He starts racing it in. The 2 is fast. Next thing you know I was thinking we were going to be out. We had lost momentum and they had gained it, just like any heavyweight fight would go. I think that’s what’s great about our sport: you just never know. That’s why you got to tune in until the final lap.”
The final lap saw a lot of excitement, with Harvick almost making the move necessary to secure the tie-breaker. He would get into Kyle Busch off of the final corner, hoping to spin him out for the final position. The move did not work, with Busch doing a 360 and crossing the finish line as Harvick backed into the frontstretch wall.
“You have to do what you have to do to get to the final round. I have no problem with what happened personally,” Joe Gibbs Racing Competition Director Wally Brown told POPULAR SPEED. “Everyone’s going for it. That’s the structure, the way we’ve set it up now. That’s the way you’ve got to race.”
The closing laps also had many question the intentions of fellow JGR driver Erik Jones, who was behind Hamlin through the final 20 circuits. There was also a moment where spotter Rick Carelli can be heard saying, “Don’t pass him., Jones. Stay with him and drive what you can.” NASCAR reviewed the radio chatter and final laps of the event, but stated there would be no penalties for what occured.
Gabehart quickly played down the discussion during the media conference on Monday, saying “there were no team orders there,” referencing when Jones out-ran Hamlin for the Lucky Dog earlier in the event.
“I can certainly tell you where Martinsville was concerned, Erik was doing plenty of what he was needed to do to the 11’s back bumper to try to get by him. If there were some sort of team orders on, he wouldn’t have been beating our back bumper,” he added. “I think Denny was very determined to not get passed, he knew how important it was, he was very difficult to pass, and that’s how it played out.”
Brown backed up the crew chief’s claims of no team orders, saying that’s “just not the way we race.”
“I mean, at that point in time, Denny was not going to let him around,” Brown continued. “They probably would have crashed if they would have tried to. If he would have tried to make a pass, he probably would have crashed both of them, no different than the last lap effort on the 4 car. The stakes are high. You’re not going to give up those spots, you’re going to do everything you can. That’s the way I look at it.”
Regardless of the circumstances in the final event of the Round of 8, it’s clear Hamlin and Gabehart have what it takes to possibly be crowned the champions this weekend at Phoenix Raceway as evident by winning seven races this season. The reason why they are so good together boils down to several reasons, according to the crew chief.
“It’s really about this whole race team,” he said. “Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx, Toyota, all the members of the 11 team, all the guys back here at the shop. It takes all of that for that foundation to allow us to work together the way we do.
The bottom line is it’s trust. He trusts that he’s getting the very best out of his race team each and every week. I trust he’s giving us his very best each and every week. That trust builds upon success. We’ve been fortunate to have that. It does nothing but continue to grow roots, hopefully for years to come.”