The Daytona 500 is the biggest event in stock car racing, on its brightest stage at one of its fastest tracks. At the end of Sunday’s 61st running of The Great American Race, the lights shined brightly on Denny Hamlin as the winner - along with his rookie crew chief who is a short track lifer.
Chris Gabehart was named Hamlin’s crew chief entering the 2019 season, coming after three seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing as a crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In his first race since being named full-time crew chief for Hamlin, the duo won the biggest trophy of them all.
That feeling still hasn’t sunk in for Gabehart, even as the calendar turns towards his next race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“The best I can tell you, you hear all the time about it hasn’t sunk in yet, I don’t know what it means yet,” Gabehart told Speed51. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those things happen to me in my career, but this is by far the biggest one. It’s cliche, but it’s true. It really hasn’t sunk in.
“The way our sport works, being the new guy, Atlanta is coming up this weekend, you really don’t get a chance to relish it too much before the competitor in you takes over and it’s time to try and win again. That’s our DNA.”
Gabehart was a championship racer in his own right, winning the 2007 ARCA/CRA Super Series title and the 2008 All-American 400 at Fairground Speedway Nashville. After his racing career, he immediately transitioned into a successful crew chief, winning the Snowball Derby, Oxford 250, and All-American 400 while calling the shots for Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and T.J. Reaid respectively.
Gabehart believes that success has been vital towards his progression up the racing ladder. Even as the stakes grow and the cars get faster, having the knowledge and feel for a winning formula helps him know exactly what to look for on Sundays.
“For me, it’s just reps, I guess is the best way to say it,” Gabehart said. “If you’re a football player, it’s reps on the football field. If you’re a basketball player, it’s shooting free throws in practice. Whatever the case may be, it’s just the ability and opportunity at a very high level in a sport to learn what it’s like to win, what the process is like, the adversity you have to overcome, the trials and tribulations, the people you work with, the strategy you implement, the feel you look for in a race car as a driver.
“All those experiences, I’ve been able to subconsciously stow away,” he continued. “As I’ve moved forward in my professional NASCAR career, where I’m making money instead of spending it, it’s taught me that the formula is the same. The situation may look different, there may be more or less people involved, the challenge may be greater, but the formula really is the same. It gives you the confidence that because you’ve done it in the past, you can do it again in the future. It’s just a matter of looking for those key moments and those key feelings and putting those key ingredients together to make the cake.
“It really isn’t any different along the way, it’s just the magnitude of what you’re trying to do,” Gabehart added. I’ve succeeded in racing at everything I’ve set out to do. While this is the biggest league, it gives me the confidence I can do this.”
That experience showed over the course of the 200-lap race, as Hamlin, Gabehart, and the No. 11 team overcame a fueling issue en route to the win.
“The neat part about our win was that we went through some adversity, we were struggling to get fuel in the car,” Gabehart explained. “Our plan got completely derailed. For us to get the train back on the track and rebound to win was a huge confidence booster.”
Hamlin boasts a similar short track background, going through the Late Model Stock wars of Virginia and the Carolinas before getting his break with the Gibbs team. As a result, both Gabehart and Hamlin have the utmost faith in each other and respect for how they’ve gotten to this level of the sport.
“I think Denny has a lot of faith in me because we have a similar background,” Gabehart stated. “We did make it through the ranks in a similar way. He knows enough about where I’ve been and how I’ve climbed the ladder. If I‘ve gotten to this point, I’m capable of getting the job done. That gives us a lot of confidence in each other.
“For me, he’s won 32 times at the sport’s top level,” he added. “He can win at any race track on any given weekend. It makes it very simple for us. If we do our job, we’ve got a chance to win every week.”
While the feeling of winning the Daytona 500 hasn’t completely settled in for Gabehart, there have been moments throughout the past five days that have resonated strongly with him. One of those was during the post-race media availability, as car owner “Coach” Joe Gibbs discussed the importance of Sunday’s win.
“[Gibbs] said this was the single-biggest accomplishment of his professional career, the one that meant the most to him,” Gabehart recounted. “I thought that was really striking, as accomplished as he is in two of the biggest sports in our country, for that to be the case and for me to be a part of that was huge.”
Another came on Monday, at the traditional breakfast following the Daytona 500. During the breakfast, Gabehart was presented with the trophy for winning the 500 as crewe chief.
“It wasn’t that I at all agreed with this, but when [Daytona International Speedway President] Chip Wile was giving me my championship crew chief trophy at the breakfast on Monday, he’s giving his speech,” explained Gabehart. “He said, ‘Chris, this puts you in the elite club of Dale Inman, Ray Evernham and Chad Knaus of people who have won the Daytona 500 as crew chief.’ I aspire to have the credentials they have one day, of course I do, but to even be put in the same sentence as those guys while being handed a trophy that congratulates me for winning the Daytona 500, it’s like, wow. This really happened.”
Gabehart comes from a racing family, with both his father Kevin Gabehart and his grandfather Al Straub former racers. Sharing this week with his family has also been a special part of the win, thanks to their role in his development both as a racer and a human being.
“My grandparents were actually there at that race with me, and they were a big part of my racing career,” Gabehart said. “My parents weren’t able to be with me, but they were a huge part of my racing career, as anybody who knows about my Late Model career would know.
“My grandfather was a racer himself, he raced in NASCAR in the Grand American day. He’s never missed the Daytona 500 since 1963. He’s been to every one. His wife was there for that one too. He’s been so deeply embedded in the history of the sport and got to experience that.”
Gabehart also relished the opportunity to share the win with his wife - surprisingly, the first time he’s been able to do so on a national NASCAR level despite nine wins in the Xfinity Series.
“My wife was there with me. It’s the first win she’s ever been to of mine,” Gabehart said. “We had nine Xfinity wins, but ironically the ones she came to, we’d never get to victory lane. It was her first time experiencing all of that, on the biggest stage. Victory Lane is crazy, with all the media after, just getting to share that with her, the breakfast the next morning, all of those things.
“It’s hard to know the amount of sacrifice that’s been put in by my family and my wife to get to this point. Any racer has those stories, I’m not special in that, but they’re special to me. To get to share that with them and they get to witness everything that comes with accomplishing the goal is probably the thing most special to me.”
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51.com