Right Sides Only: Notes from the Toyota 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chris Gabehart

by Stacey Owens

It's been a while since NASCAR fans were treated to a mid-week Cup race. The day of the week wasn't the only way this race was different. Chris Gabehart, crew chief for race winner Denny Hamlin, talked about those differences after the race.

"It was obviously different for a lot of reasons. Wednesday night, we had rain, ended up being a rain-shortened race. It's a shorter race than a Cup race would normally be here at Darlington so strategy was a little bit different than normal. A lot of things that were different. Because it was a night race, had a lot of grip. Darlington didn't fall off normally like it does, tires didn't quite mean as much.
"One thing that was consistent was we had a really fast car, drove really good. Denny is obviously really good here. Fortunately we were able to get him to the front. We were really fast once we got there and had some rain break our way at the end," Gabehart said.

Teams were only given nine sets of tires for the entire race. Near the end, Gabehart made the decision to leave Hamlin on the track. He talked about that pit strategy.

"Yeah, so we actually got ourselves in a little bit of a tire crunch there. When we had that caution that trapped a bunch of cars a lap down, Denny felt like he wanted to use our last set of tires there to get just a couple-lap advantage over the 9, restart fourth. There was a lot of strategy going on there.
"That was our last set of stickers. We were taking off what had only had a lap and a half on them. Those were going to be the set we put on if we really needed them. They were going to be lap-and-a-half scuffs. It takes a little bit of time once you glue them up to get the lug nuts where you're confident you can do another pit stop. Can't put the tires back on in 12 seconds. Takes a little time.
"Wasn't 100% certain we could have a flawless pit stop there. If we had a lug nut fall off, it would have ruined our day. The 19 stayed out with 10 lap old tires, was actually able to lead a good portion of the race after doing it. Clearly clean air was really important.
"I knew how good our car was. I felt like we could hold them off for a few laps if we needed to. Then the last bit of it was we knew rain was in the area, it was going to rain any minute.
"There were a lot of things that went into it. The bottom line was I felt like we needed the lead there so I just stayed out," Gabehart explained.

Gabehart felt certain that the weather pattern he was watching would mean the race would ultimately be shortened. As he monitored the rain, he also had to monitor other teams' pit strategy.

"This was a unique situation, for sure. It had a lot of variables playing into it really quickly. Again, trapping a bunch of cars a lap down, kind of having the fortune of knowing where you're going to restart if you pit. There was just a lot going on for sure. A very unique situation. I can't say I found myself in that style of situation ever before.
"That's the amazing thing about Cup racing at this level, is you just find so many different ways to get challenged because your competition is so good that you just find yourself in a lot of unique situations. Luckily we came out on the right side of it today," Gabehart said.

During typical race seasons, team visit a track once or twice. Wednesday night marked the second of three races to be run at Darlington Raceway this year. After having run two races at the Lady in Black during a single week, teams will again race there in September for the Southern 500. How important was Wednesday's "extra" race for teams?

"We had a really good car Sunday. We had a third-place car, but it had what I felt like was a few fatal flaws from a handling perspective.
"Being that we get to come back just a few short days later in conditions that will be more like the Southern 500 later this year, myself and the engineers took the opportunity and really swung the bat hard. We didn't come back with a setup anything like what we raced Sunday even though we were good Sunday.
"It was all about trying to learn for the fall, just believing in your guys, your tools. I'm just so proud of my engineers and our process at Joe Gibbs Racing, how we worked through it. I had all the confidence in the world to really swing the bat. It worked out," Gabehart explained.

After two races in South Carolina, teams head home to North Carolina for this weekend's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Did having both a day race and a night race help teams in advance of the season's longest race, which will start during daylight and end under the lights?

"All of these race teams, ours included, have built a system that kind of works off a seven-day-a-week cycle. We had to be at the racetrack Saturdays and Fridays to practice and qualify. You have a lot more time. These race teams are well-oiled machines they optimize that process.
"Now with everything that's went on in our world, that process has been blown up overnight. There wasn't any scheduling a year out for us to prepare for it. It kind of happened without us knowing it.  It really has changed the game.
"I can tell you that Monday and Tuesday went by in the blink of an eye. I feel like over the last two months every day has felt like a year to me. I can assure you the last two days felt like minutes. It definitely changes the way you think about it, the way you have to prepare for those events. It really tests the efficiency of your race team.
"I'm just so proud to be able to win one of them because I think we got a really good race team where that's concerned," Gabehart said.

Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
   The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far. 

   This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; stand-up comedy, though she bumbles almost every joke she attempts to tell; Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life; and her husband who's supportive of her NASCAR obsession... as long as she allows him to obsess over UT college football every fall.

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Toyota 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chris Gabehart Right Sides Only: Notes from the Toyota 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chris Gabehart Reviewed by Stacey Owens on Thursday, May 21, 2020 Rating: 5