DARLINGTON, SC — Denny HamlinThe damaged car, packed with the disappointment of another race gone awry, was loaded into the Joe Gibbs Racing dumper at Darlington Raceway Sunday night as crew chief Chris Gabehart inspected the scene and the standings of the No. 11 team, one-third of the way through the cup season.
“I am convinced that we are the most dangerous team in 22nd place in the history of the sport,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “I am convinced that we are the most poisonous snake lying in the grass. Every week we can jump up and put this thing on his ear. We could have won last week. We could have won this week.”
A race that played into Hamlin’s hands turned when a slow pit stop sent him deep into the field and into the path of a multi-car crash. Hamlin was left with his second straight 21st place after having one of the stronger cars.
“We’re all frustrated,” Gabehart said. “Gosh, it’s hard. I don’t know what you’re doing except racing next week. Again, the speed and ability of everyone on the team is not lacking. If so, that’s hard to fix. That’s a long-term march and slog. … We’re not there, but gosh, it’s frustrating to go through it week in, week out, sure.”
Darlington marked the fifth consecutive race as Hamlin finished 18th or worse. Other than his win at Richmond in early April, he has not had a top-10 result this season.
So, how can a team that has fewer top 10s than 22 drivers this year be one to watch? It’s what this team does, even in those races that end with bad results.
On Sunday Hamlin had to start from the back because the underbody was damaged during qualifying and had to be repaired. He was in the top 10 on lap 57 and finished seventh on the opening stage.
The second leg showed the strength of the team. Hamlin was seventh when Gabehart put him in front of many other cars on lap 134. That helped Hamlin gain two places when the green flag pit cycle was completed.
A warning on lap 168 for the incident with: Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch led the field to the pit road. Hamlin then finished fourth. His crew secured him a spot and moved him to third. Hamlin finished stage 2 fourth.
During the warning at the end of that stage, Hamlin’s crew first got him off the pit lane, allowing him to go from the back of the field at the start of the race to gain control of the event. He led 42 of the next 51 laps.
Hamlin’s race unraveled under caution for Alex Bowman‘s incident. Hamlin was seventh as there were still a few cars to pit up front. He left the pit lane outside the top 15 due to a slow stop. Gabehart said a tire changer failed to reset the pit gun to tighten the lug nut after it was removed to change tires.
Hamlin’s car, in the middle of the pack, was damaged in the nine-car accident after the restart.
“As insanely frustrating as this is, I’ll be taking this to the 12th every week and not knowing how to proceed,” said Gabehart. “…To overcome adversity I will start at the back at Darlington – a one lane track – and control the race at the start of Stage 3, I am happy to take this. I’d like to take a car and a team that is able to drive around the field in Dover as we were in twelfth place and searching (by speed).”
There is still a challenge for this team. Gabehart is faced with a four-race suspension for a wheel that comes off Hamlin’s car in Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing is appealing the penalty. Gabehart understands there’s a good chance he won’t be on the track anytime soon.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s hard,” he said. “Morale is important. Right now, as Denny says, we are waiting for the anvil to fall on our heads. It’s just where we are. Again, the speech is simple, the message is simple. We have the ability to win every week, from the pit crew to the driver to the crew chief to the engineers to the mechanics, head to toe, we have the ability.
“This is no longer a points system, it is no longer a season defined by 36 races, it is not. It’s defined to warm up at the right time and dominate when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is to try and get some more playoff points and get warm when it’s time. We have the capacity to do that.”
It will not be easy to get there just because of all the problems that have plagued this team. Hamlin said he felt he had the best car in Las Vegas before missing a shift and breaking the drivetrain, ending his race. He led 67 laps at Dover and won the opening stage before his wheel fell off. He led 42 laps at Darlington and scored 11 stage points for the season before the slow pit stop and then crashed.
All the problems the number 11 car has suffered, Gabehart noted, has an impact on the team.
“We’re all so gun-shy and snakebite right now that in those cases you inevitably perform at your 90-95th percentile because you’re psychologically waiting for what’s next,” he said. “Once you break that barrier, I think you’re going to see really top-notch ability, and I’m just waiting for this team to do it.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie smiled after Sunday night Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth, giving Stenhouse a back-to-back top 10 for the first time since joining JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020.
“It’s nice to finally have a few breaks,” Pattie told NBC Sports. “I think the technical group, we agreed on a few things that we were working on and it has turned out well over the past two weeks. We just continue down that road.
“Obviously a team of one car kind of puts you behind the ball (with information gathering).”
Stenhouse said after finishing second at Dover last week that the team was “trying to come up with a new philosophy” for some circuits.
Pattie explained the change.
“Part of it was an approximation,” he said. “The cars are so much different, so much to work on, also aerodynamically and mechanically, that we had to – ‘Let’s take a step back and make it simple, don’t kid ourselves’ – and we run better.”
Pattie said the team worked on the car all night. The number 47 car benefited from the pit strategy. Pattie called Stenhouse to the pits on lap 229, making him one of the first to pit. Stenhouse was 14th for the pits. He was fifth when the green flag cycle ended.
A warning on lap 256 enabled Stenhouse to move with the field for the final stop of the race. He finished eighth behind winner Joey Logano.
“A one-stop strategy (on the last stage) was probably the fastest on paper, but our car fell off so badly after 32, 34 laps, we just made the decision that we would stop it right on our tracks and watch what’s happening,” Pattie said of the team’s evolving strategy.
“Luckily there was a warning when it was necessary and he was in the top five and that was the windfall you get.”
It’s what the team needs.
“Something’s finally coming your way,” Pattie said.
One day before finishing a season-best third at Darlington Raceway, Justin Haley noted the progress his Kaulig Racing team has made this season.
“You just have to take the good weeks and maximize those and take the bad weeks and learn from them,” he said.
Kaulig Racing and Haley have done that. Haley has four consecutive top-15 results, 14th on the dirt track in Bristol, 12th in Talladega, 11th in Dover and third in Darlington.
Haley’s finish on Sunday was his best in the Cup since his 2019 win at Daytona. Sunday’s result was the best for Kaulig in Cup since AJ Allmendinger‘s win at the Indy road course.
“The past three weeks have meant a lot,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. “…It just means a lot to Kaulig Racing to come and compete.”
Haley took advantage of the pit strategy but when he was in position he took advantage of it to score a top five result.
“I don’t think we had a car in third place, but we are an organization that can have a good strategic day and be at the front,” Haley said after the race.