MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin has experienced a substantial amount of growth both personally and professionally this season, but two key influencers have given him the tools to reach that higher level.
It’s no coincidence the addition of crew chief Chris Gabehart has played a massive role in what has led to a Championship 4 berth and one of Hamlin’s best shots at a title in his 14-year career.
After Hamlin’s clutch win in last Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Hamlin felt he misspoke when he documented he and Gabehart aren‘t great friends away from the race track, citing Gabehart has assisted in the balance of maturing from a personal and professional standpoint.
“We do talk about other things other than racing,” Hamlin said. “We call each other in the middle of the week. Sometimes it’s just kick it. Probably not a fair statement to say we’re just professional partners in this and that’s it. I think he brings out the best in me. That is absolutely for sure.”
Gabehart, a 38-year-old Purdue University graduate that made his way from his driving days in late-model racing to a mechanical engineer for Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, steered the No. 11 ship from a winless 2018 season to a six-win championship-contending path. Not only has Gabehart served as the mastermind behind the team‘s stellar season, but he‘s also been quite possibly Hamlin‘s biggest cheerleader.
“I always think about every time I suit up or I get in the race car, I buckle in, he comes to the window and talks to me,” Hamlin said. “I feel like this has just been something he’s rehearsed, just the speech to pump me up. It’s so funny, he’ll leave, and the guy that puts my window nets up, wonder how long he spent practicing that?
“He never is short of motivation,” he added. “I think that’s really one of his strong suits. You hear it on the radio, too, right? Kind of never lets me get out too far one way. He guides you back in the lane.”
To say Gabehart‘s leadership has provided vital direction that Hamlin needed would be a disservice to the close relationship Hamlin held with former crew chief Mike Wheeler prior to this year, but you also can‘t ignore the magnitude of Gabehart‘s ability to bring out the best in those around him.
Even team owner Joe Gibbs agrees.
“If you go through a whole year like he (Hamlin) did last year and not win a race and the rumors start, is this guy over the hill?” Gibbs said Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I think Denny was fighting through that saying that‘s not the case.
“I think Chris really helped because Chris has a different outlook on things and then I think Denny getting off to the start that he did winning that Daytona 500. I think that we all know that people mature and grow up, different things happen in their life. Denny‘s in a part in his life where he says I get a second chance really in a lot of ways and he‘s making the most of it. I think Gabehart has really helped him with that.”
Gibbs has also been a source of strength for Hamlin this year, especially after the tragic loss of Gibbs‘ son, J.D. The younger Gibbs discovered Hamlin, taking him from the short-track scene in Virginia to NASCAR stardom fairly rapidly.
Through the heartbreak, Hamlin was able to shake the pain and win the Daytona 500, kickstarting a season that has led to another championship opportunity in Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). But it wasn’t all paradise from there as Hamlin noted the summer months were a rough patch for him, but it was Gibbs who stepped in beyond his role as an owner.
“When you see somebody going through something like that with Denny or any of our guys that you’ve been with for a while, yeah, you share with them, talk to them,” Gibbs said. “You’re friends really, and sometimes you can help, particularly if you’ve been through a lot of things in life and you’re a little older, sometimes you can help.”
It’s obvious the 38-year-old veteran has a chip on his shoulder bigger than the size of hometown Chesterfield, Virginia, but he‘s relaxed in his approach to what he feels like he has to prove.
Whether or not Hamlin is destined to hoist his first championship trophy Sunday night in South Florida, Hamlin can view the 2019 season as a success both on and off the track, having Gabehart and Gibbs in part to thank.
“This year I’m excited because I know I’ve got the opportunity, a really, really good, legit opportunity to go out there and get it done,” Hamlin said. “I’m just going to do the same things, prepare the same way that I have all year. I know that will give me a chance. At some point in the race, I’m going to have an opportunity to take control and win the race. As long as I continue to do that, I’ll live with the result, win or lose.”