HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin was on the verge of giving the other Championship 4 drivers a late-race run for their money Sunday night at Miami. Then it was taken away by tape.
With 45 laps remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop after the No. 11 Toyota began to overheat due to an aggressive application of tape on the grille.
“I was gonna blow up,” Hamlin said on pit road after the race. “I had to make the right call. Try to un-lap ourselves and try to get a caution … drop a miracle. It stinks but also we had a great year.”
Hamlin’s effort to rally back came up short after un-lapping himself under green with the advantage of fresh tires, finishing 10th to claim fourth in the final standings for the 2019 season while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch drove off to win his second title.
“I don’t think I could have done a better job,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think I could have ‑‑ I didn’t leave anything out there. So, for the first half of the race we just weren’t fast enough, we weren’t handling very good, and all of a sudden it went nighttime and we took off, and suddenly I perked up and got a little more and was thinking that we’ve got a chance.”
For crew chief Chris Gabehart, it was an aggressive play late in the race that just didn’t work out.
“That was a tough scenario there with what we were trying to pull off,” Gabehart said. “It’s uncharted territory a little bit for how our cars are built. … We just didn’t execute that play, and I wish I could have it back and not be so greedy there because I don’t know we needed it anyway.”
“What we tried to pull off here is trying to win Homestead and let the emotion of the moment get the best of us of trying to do it,” he added. “We just got too aggressive. Plain and simple. That’s on me.”
Both Hamlin and Gabehart admitted that they didn’t have the speed throughout the first two stages to compete with Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, boxing them into making a bold adjustment. But once dusk settled over South Florida, the 11 car came to life before it spewing water out at temperatures of 300+ degrees.
“We were awful, I mean awful for two straight stages,” Gabehart said. “Then Denny Hamlin got on the radio and said we are not done.”
While they didn’t win the big trophy, the move is what Gabehart feels championship-caliber teams have to do sometimes. Taking a risk just doesn’t always work out.
“A race team is not going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire,” Gabehart said. “You have got to dance with the fire to beat these guys and that’s what this race team does. But the problem with dancing with it is every now and then you get burned.”
Gabehart was also quick to place the blame on himself, not the team for a piece of tape that turned into travesty.
“This is pro sports,” Gabehart said. “Winners want the ball and they take the shots and sometimes they miss it. My team is full of winners and they want the ball. That don’t mean they are going to execute every time they want the ball. … I am the leader of this race team, I called an aggressive play and they tried to execute it because that’s what they do.”
Despite the heartbreak, Hamlin isn’t going to let the defeat eat away at him going into the offseason after winning six races in his first season, optimistic for what the future holds with what he was able to accomplish with a new leader atop the pit box.
“It’s not like I’m going to go through the offseason upset or sad,” Hamlin said. “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 lot, like a lot next year. I just think that we’ll have another opportunity. There’s no question.”