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March 18, 2024

Analysis: Chemistry of Chris Gabehart, Denny Hamlin shines in Bristol triumph

Heading into Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, no one truly knew how the NASCAR Cup Series cars would react upon the concrete surface of the 0.533-mile bullring oval.

Not after Saturday’s practice, anyway, which resulted in track conditions and tire-wear patterns that were confusing at best, or otherwise befuddling.

And yet the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team spotlighted by driver Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart rose above any adversity thrown at them in the 500-lap chess match that struck Thunder Valley on Sunday afternoon.

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If you’ve been watching NASCAR racing since 2019, it should be no surprise that this duo’s chemistry was perfectly matched yet again. Their Bristol triumph marked their 20th win together — plus one with former lead engineer Sam McAuley in Gabehart’s relief in 2022. Hamlin’s 21 victories since the start of 2019 are the most of all drivers, equating to an 11.4% win rate in those 185 points-paying races.

No matter the situation, Hamlin and Gabehart appear unfazed by misfortune, oddities or distractions. So when Goodyear’s tires began wearing to their cords early and often on Bristol’s concrete, Hamlin and Gabehart evaluated, adapted and conquered.

“He did a great job of just updating me with every pit stop what was going on with the tires,” Hamlin said Sunday. “‘Hey, this was this amount of run, how many laps. This tire was corded; this tire was corded.’ Just letting me make adjustments from there. That’s really what he did great. It allowed me to do my job at a high level when you have that kind of information. Certainly, he just kept making the car better, as well.

“It’s not all driver. You have to have a car that is easy on the tires, as well. They just did a great job building me that today.”

Bristol provided perhaps the most unpredictable 500 laps ever run around “The Last Great Colosseum,” a bold claim to be sure, but not unfounded after a track-record 54 lead changes among 16 drivers while each competitor figured out how best to maximize their equipment in real time.

“Again, it’s so far off the playbook from what anyone was expecting when the lift gates opened Saturday morning,” Gabehart said. “No one. There’s not a single driver, single crew chief, engineer that planned on this. You calibrate your entire world around a certain set of parameters for Bristol. It was pretty clear right after practice, again pretty clear after 80 laps into the race, all of that had to go out the window.

“Now it’s instincts. A lot of your prep work, tools and planning, for the most part, are invalid. It’s still a race car. It’s still got an engine, driver, four black things on it for a while ’til they turn gray. It’s way different. You have to go off instinct every part of the race. That’s everybody. That’s the tire guy, the car chief, the mechanics helping. …

“Every 40 laps those guys are having to get data off the tires, get the information to me so I can get it to him, get the next set ready to go. Goodyear released another set. We have to go get it, match that set up. We don’t just bolt them on the car. There’s a lot that goes into what did we get, how does it match up with the tires we have, when do you want to use these, use your qualifying scuffs. It had it all, and that really makes it fun.”

Denny Hamlin, left, and Chris Gabehart speak before a NASCAR Cup Series race.
Zack Albert |

That fun — the exuberance of winning a race that necessitated mental strategy, different techniques and quick processing — glowed upon their faces Sunday evening as they sat in the Bristol media center.

And that the track demanded abnormal approaches to its corners as opposed to different years? That only added to the thrill Hamlin experienced in Victory Lane.

“I know I had such a huge role in the result,” Hamlin said. “If the car was not good, I wasn’t going to win. But I feel like I played a huge factor in the result. It’s really a proud one for me. Certainly one of the more proud ones I’ve had in my career, no question.”

How fitting, too, one week after explaining that more tire management would put the results of the race more into the drivers’ hands at Phoenix Raceway. In fact, Phoenix proved another example of Gabehart and Hamlin overcoming obstacles after Hamlin spun while battling Tyler Reddick for the race lead, rallying back to an 11th-place finish.

With a series-best 8.46 average running position and 272 laps led, it’s been a rock-solid start for the No. 11 group. Don’t be surprised if the team only gets better from here.