CONCORD, N.C. — In one way, Joe Gibbs Racing crew chiefs James Small and Chris Gabehart enter Sunday’s penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series season in identical positions, each of their teams 17 points beneath the provisional elimination line ahead of Martinsville Speedway.
In another, their respective postseasons could not feel more different.
Small and the No. 19 team, headed by driver Martin Truex Jr., have been plagued by bad breaks, failed execution or poor results on a seemingly weekly basis through eight races in the NASCAR Playoffs. The group collected the Regular Season Championship with a stellar 26-race stretch to start the season, but the postseason has been anything but smooth. Conversely, Gabehart’s No. 11 team with driver Denny Hamlin has generally had strong results to back up their collective speed. Both, though, enter Martinsville in need of points.
Frustration reached a visible fever pitch for the No. 19 Toyota last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where slow pit stops routinely cost Truex valuable track position before his day went up in smoke anyway due to a blown engine at Lap 237.
Thursday morning at the NASCAR Research & Development Center, where the sanctioning body hosted breakfast for the Round of 8 crew chiefs as well as media members, Small maintained a sense of optimism despite the repeated metaphorical kicks to the shin his team has taken.
“It’s just because we’ve always got a chance, you know what I mean?” Small said. “Like, that’s the mindset. We’re not out of it and they can’t kick us out that easy. So, you know, it’s no different to any of the other elimination races we went through. You know, we were behind at Bristol and we survived. It was tough at the (Charlotte) Roval and we had to do some silly things to make sure we advanced but we know we’re capable of doing it and the guys on the team just will never ever give up.
“And Martin’s the same. So long as we execute, we’ll have a good chance and I still think we can make it there next week.”
A lack of execution on pit road has been unfortunately commonplace for the No. 19 team, particularly in the postseason. Per Racing Insights, the No. 19 crew ranks 25th during the playoffs with its average four-tire service time 1.2 seconds slower than the top-ranked team of Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 RFK Racing crew.
After losing five spots on a pit stop after the conclusion of Stage 2, Truex radioed that the service was “terrible.” Reminded by Small “we can overcome it though” with plenty of laps left, Truex resigned to weeks’ worth of frustration: “Yep, we’ve always got to overcome it, don’t we?”
To help that execution, a change has been made to the No. 19 team’s pit crew ahead of Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Rear tire changer Kevon Jackson shifts to Truex’s car after spending the last eight races with the No. 54 JGR Toyota driven by Ty Gibbs. Jackman Caleb Dirks joins the squad after working on the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford most recently. Both Jackson and Dirks began the season pitting the No. 20 Toyota, another JGR car, piloted by Christopher Bell.
“You used to be able to out-aero people and do all these things and have huge car advantages,” Small said. “But now it comes down to essentially everyone’s got the same mouse trap and it’s just small gains there, but then it’s pit stops and restarts. And that can define your day. And you know, you might not glimpse that on TV or whatever as the average fan, but you have one slow stop and you lose a few spots and then you’re in a crappy restart and like things unravel really quickly and so on. Yeah, it’s critical to have a solid day on pit road.
“Our guys have been fantastic all through the regular season, and then kind of the playoffs came in and they kind of (expletive) the bed. So it’s been a challenge and they’ve been working with them and yeah, hopefully these changes will help and just lift the other guys as well who are still on the team.”
An engine failure means the result effectively would have been the same at Homestead. Worse for Joe Gibbs Racing is it happened mere moments after Hamlin’s No. 11 car suffered a mechanical failure, sending the vehicle careening into the outside SAFER barrier.
“It appears that we had an acute power steering failure at exactly the time of the downshift where he only had one hand on the wheel, and the car was really loaded up,” Gabehart explained Thursday. “So, he’s used to a certain amount of effort — he’s been doing it for 220-something laps in that exact scenario — the powering steering fails, effort instantaneously has to go way up, it ripped the wheel out of his hands, quite simply, and into the wall we went.”
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Thus the teammates — both of whom were widely viewed as locks for the Championship 4 — are deadlocked 17 points beneath the elimination line and up against it.
Hamlin enjoyed a fairly steady playoffs without much issue, but his Homestead DNF marks his second in a three-race span after crashing out at the Charlotte road course. A 10th-place run in Las Vegas to open the Round of 8 wasn’t stellar but seemed decent enough at the time to remain safe in the postseason hunt. Now, he and Gabehart head to Martinsville — one of their best tracks, statistically, with five top-five finishes in nine races there together — with ground to make up.
Currently, that final spot in the Championship 4 is held by Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who holds a 10-point advantage over fifth-place Tyler Reddick. Truex and Hamlin sit tied for sixth with all eyes locked on Blaney’s No. 12 Ford. How significant is a 17-point deficit?
“It always depends who you’re racing,” Gabehart said. “And being that the points stuff sits against Blaney, who, this is also a really good track for him. Hasn’t won yet at it. Hasn’t led really any laps in the Next Gen era. So it is possible, but he still tends to score really high. So when you look at that, 17 points is significant. But the 11 team has always been fortunate enough to not have to focus on anyone else. And that’s hard, right?
“When you talk about the course of our five years together, if we execute to our highest level, our biggest competition is ourselves. That doesn’t mean you’re gonna go win every race, but you will be in the conversation to win every race on the 11 team if we execute at a high level. And Martinsville is certainly one of the top race tracks in that category. And while we haven’t gotten the win, we’ve done everything but. Certainly Denny’s won here many times or knows how to do it, and what a great way to win a race and go into Phoenix with momentum, and I certainly think we’re capable of it and look forward to the challenge.”
Gabehart and Hamlin have gone to the Championship 4 in three of their four prior seasons together, 2022 the only exception thanks to Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” desperation move at Martinsville.
It should come as no surprise that the duo relishes the opportunity to perform when the stakes are highest. So does Gabehart feel any pressure sitting on the outside looking in?
“Honestly, no,” Gabehart said. “I just love the moments. I mean, that sounds cliche, or maybe it sounds like a joke or I’m just kidding when I say it. But I just love the moments. And the older I get, the more I do this, the more that’s true. And that’s a huge moment. I’m really happy to be a part of it. And I know we can capitalize on this. Just gotta go do it.”
Hamlin is still chasing his elusive first championship. A title slipped away at Homestead in 2019 after the team placed a significant patch of tape on the grille of the car in the wrong spot while running second, leading Hamlin’s engine to overheat and necessitate another pit stop. In 2020, his car simply couldn’t compete against the other championship contenders at Phoenix. A chance to lead the field on the final restart in 2021 slipped away after Kyle Larson’s crew performed the fastest pit stop of the year in crunch time.
One more chance to have another chance? Gabehart says bring it on.
“I think the best way I can say it is in order to win, you have to be willing to lose,” he said. “I don’t mean back into a win. I don’t mean every now and then, (not) you happen to put it together and win. I mean, be one of the most winning race teams on the track. One of the most winning drivers on the track. You don’t get those stats by not being willing to lose and OK with an understanding that it’s part of the process.
“And I think over time, we’ve both earned that respect in one another. We both know how bad we want to win and how capable we are. It doesn’t mean you’re not gonna have bad days. That’s part of it. Doesn’t mean you’re not going to slap a big piece of tape on the front of the car on the final pit stop at Homestead in 2019 and miss. That’s OK. The reason we got there is because of our willingness to do it. You know this weekend will be no different win, lose or draw.”