Crew chief blames himself for costing Hamlin NASCAR title
Denny Hamlin has competed in the top-level NASCAR Cup Series for 14 years. Four seasons among those he has come to south Florida chasing a title. As a rookie, he finished third in the race and the points standings. In 2011, he had a disaster of a race and dropped from first to third in points. And in 2014 he finished in third yet again.
For his fourth chance this year, though, it seemed that he might finally win. He had a fast, competitive car in the first two stages of the race, but had faded back to tenth when the checkered flag waved. That left him fourth in points, behind Champion Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, and Kevin Harvick.
Although he was consistently in the top-ten and in contention for during the beginning of the race, Hamlin said that, compared to the competition, "For the first half we just weren’t fast enough. We weren’t handling very good." Although he started from the pole, he didn't find the lead at all during the daytime portion of the race. But, he said, "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.”
The 11 car got hold of the lead for laps 168-169, but couldn't hold it against the challenge of his faster teammates in Truex and Busch. So crew chief Chris Gabehart took a gamble, placing tape on the nose of the car to create downforce. Gabehart said, rationalizing the decision, that "You have got to dance with the fire to beat these guys." Unfortunately, as he realized, "the problem with dancing with it is every now and then you get burned."
Hamlin's Toyota felt the heat from that fire, and began to overheat. The team was forced to make an extra, unscheduled stop at lap 222 to remove the tape, which put him a lap down. With that, he was effectively out of the Championship hunt.
“It just didn't work out,” he said. "We got a little aggressive there and it cost us." But he stood by Gabehart's decision, saying that his crew chief "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.”
Gabehart, though, accepted blame. "I've said all year long that the difference for us will be to have green races," he said. "Mistake-free races." That didn't happen on the most important stage of the year for the team. He said that "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."
He added: "That’s not on my crew, or my guys. That’s on me."
Hamlin said that he would expect Gabehart to make that kind of call. "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.
The driver was emotional after the race, but said he looked forward to next season. "I’m looking forward to having the momentum that we took through this year," he said, "and we're going to win a lo… like a lot … next year. I think we'll have another opportunity. There's no question.”
He also looks forward to working with his crew chief next season, fully expecting him to continue to give him fast cars and to go for it every week.