Denny Hamlin heard the rumors in the offseason between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Heading into a contract year, it was time for perform.
Hamlin, went winless in 2018. He looked like maybe he had already hit the top level of his career. Was this the middle of a downward slide? If so, Joe Gibbs Racing has plenty of Toyota drivers to bring up. After all, they’d soon need that seat anyhow.
Well, Hamlin silenced any doubts quickly. He went out with a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart, and won the season opening Daytona 500. Gabehart, would get the most out of his new driver which has solidified Hamlin’s stature with the team for the future.
Hamlin, won six times a year ago. That’s the most in a single season since 2010. He also had career highs in top fives (19) and top 10s (24) and marched all the way to the Championship 4 at Homestead.
So far this year, he’s already won five more times in just 19 races. He already has 10 top five finishes and 11 top 10s. It seems like 2019 may have been the start of a rise, not the second year of a decline.
Credit his relationship with Gabehart for that. They’ve won 11 times in 52 races together. By comparison Crew chief Rodney Childers and driver Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5%). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%). Gabehart, has while they’re looking like a Chad Knaus-Jimmie Johnson duo, he doesn’t want to be compared to them.
“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period. Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.
“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category. That’s not for me to do. I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.
“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.
“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win. Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.” Hamlin says, this is just the start. “That relationship really works well,” said Hamlin of Gabehart. “We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.” Hamlin says that the relationship works because of trust.
“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.
“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.
“I think he believes in his race team. That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.
“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”