Toyota Racing – Chris Gabehart
NASCAR Cup Series Quotes
SPARTA, Ky. (July 10, 2020) – Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Chris Gabehart (Denny Hamlin) was made available to media via videoconference in advance of the race at Kentucky Speedway:
CHRIS GABEHART, crew chief, No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Are you to the point yet where you can get six cars prepared for a three week stretch?
“Yeah, we used to take backups to the race track every week not that long ago. The most difficult part would be taking – getting backup road course cars prepared, because backup intermediate and short track cars are a different story. Those comprise the majority of your car pool, whereas road course cars you don’t run – we are not a primary road course series – so we have plans along the way to go one direction and then changing and having to bring a backup road course car would throw a wrench in the spokes, but again, these are tough times for all of us. NASCAR and the race teams, media and TV, and people – it’s hard on all of us. So, as long as we get enough lead time to know what the rules are, we will work it out.”
Can you kind of expand on your thoughts on practice?
“I think like everything in the sport it’s going to evolve. I think what’s exciting to people in our sport when they see rule changes is the uncertainty and the unknown that comes from them, but our jobs as race teams – especially at the top level – is to adapt and optimize. You’ve not seen the effects of that yet by any stretch of the imagination because adapting and then optimizing to a world where there is consistently no practice or qualifying is one of the bigger hurdles that the competition side of our sport would have ever had to have jumped. It’s not something you will see optimized overnight by any stretch. I think it will continue to evolve for the rest of the season, and you’re only starting to know what that looks like in reality by the end of the season and maybe even into next year as teams continue to adapt and optimize under that new climate. I think that we have to be really hesitant to make any knee jerk decisions here. There are a lot of variables going on in this time, and at the end of the day, my job is to figure out how to put the best product on the racetrack but I can tell you it’s two very different paths dependent on the scenario where we practice or the scenario if we don’t.”
Does the lack of practice favor the bigger teams or the smaller teams?
“Yeah, that seems to be the popular opinion – that it helps the smaller teams narrow the gap. I think what you are seeing right now is a little bit of organized chaos. In that, yes this is a world where the big teams don’t get that practice optimization and the small teams – and I’m using loose quotes here, I think there is a lot of talented people in the Cup garage – but the smaller teams hit it a little bit better and therefore race a little bit better, but again, you have seen optimization yet. I think the optimized product will look very different. I think the teams with the most resources will continue to get better in this climate.”
You have been with Denny Hamlin for about one and a half seasons. What has been the most eye-opening thing about your driver? Has something changed since you became his crew chief?
“Well, it’s a little bit hard for me to comment on who he was before I got here. Certainly, from a crew chief – driver perspective, so it’s a little bit different for me to comment on any change that may have occurred, but what I like most about our relationship is just the trust that we have with one another to do each other’s jobs. Denny does not get in the way of what myself and the engineers and the race team feels is best in terms of putting the racecar on the racetrack to have our best shot to win, and we trust in him to do his job no matter the scenario. We certainly work together to optimize both situations, but at the end of the day if he showed up this weekend and the right side tires were leaning outwards and the left side tires were leaning inwards, he would look at it a little strange and get in it and go race because that’s what he thinks his team needs for that weekend to make the car fast. Vice versa, we stand behind our guys, so there is a lot of comfort in that. That only works if you have success to go along with it. You certainly start out trusting each other and believing one another, but if the results don’t come that trust can erode away because you are not getting the results. Well clearly, we’ve been getting them, and it makes it easier to lean on each other and believe in each other. Even coming off of a tough weekend like we had in Indy, we clearly had the win in the bag there at the end and just didn’t have air in the right front tire long enough to get it done.”
As this race goes green, what are the biggest questions in your mind?
“Well Kentucky Speedway is a track that continues to evolve. These repaves, and certainly the new approach we’ve taken with the type of aggerate that we use for repaves at Texas and Kentucky are where you are seeing that evolution. The tracks are changing a lot, year after year. A lot quicker than the old repaves say of Michigan and Kansas, so you are seeing it evolve. I think you saw a peek of that last night in the Xfinity race, where the traction compound was clearly dominant. Whereas, when the pavement was a little newer – even a year ago – the lanes were a little more even. I think that’s the thing the teams have their eyes on the most right now is will that lower lane start to produce an option or will the traction compound continue to be dominant. The other thing is Goodyear brought a new tire trying to evolve with the racetrack. It’s the same tire we ran at Las Vegas. There is heavier left side wear trying to give us a little more grip, but that left side wear will definitely change pit strategy.”
Jimmie Johnson tested positive for COVID but has been cleared and will be back this weekend. To not have your driver would be tough, so have you talked to Denny and reminded him to be careful?
“Other than say exactly what you said, Claire, I don’t think there is anything else that can be reiterated at this point. Certainly, I’m sure the owners and the sponsors are chiming in with their drivers just the same, so there is really no scene in beating a dead horse. It’s just a great reminder for everybody that it seems like we are in a highly contagious environment and the virus can sneak in your back door and you not even know it. Obviously, on a personal note for Jimmie, I’m just gutted for him. What a fantastic career he’s had, and he’s literally started every race that he ever sought to start since his career began. I personally would have wanted nothing more for him than to have seen that through all the way to the Phoenix race. Really gutted for him and his team, but Jimmie is such a true professional that he’s going to handle it with the most class possible and I’m looking forward to seeing him race again this weekend in Kentucky.”
Has the uncertainty of not knowing what the schedule was affected your preparation?
“It definitely does. There’s two parts to that. One is it is a lot harder to get into a rhythm when one weekend you are racing twice in the same weekend, and the next week you don’t race again till Sunday, but then there’s a Wednesday race thrown in there and then you race the next Sunday as well, and then there’s a Thursday race coming up with Kansas, and then your off the final weekend, so there’s just not how these race teams are set-up to operate traditionally. So, you can’t get into any type of rhythm or routine or it’s much more difficult to because your rhythm really depends on the week where in the past you would work as a race team Monday through Wednesday, you load up the truck, it would go to the next racetrack and the next week, you would start all over again. That rhythm has been difficult, and then on top of that, NASCAR – I can’t imagine the details of everything that they are having to go through to get the race schedule set in stone and it’s a constantly evolving environment, so what they may have thought was stone, two weeks later isn’t, and they are having to change with that. Obviously as you see with Watkins Glen and the Daytona Road Course – the most obvious current example. So on the race team side, yes, it makes it really difficult to figure out what is coming but again in this sport – more than most – I think the competitors have been trained to be agile and adaptive because whether it is rule changes or the schedule changes or COVID19, one thing that racers are constantly used to at this level is change and it’s how you deal with it is how you typically put yourself at the front of the field.”
Do you go into the shop and if so, how quarantined do the shop people have to stay from the road people?
“Yeah, so I think every organization handles it a little bit different. We as crew chiefs have been in the shop and so as our road crew, but it’s on a very limited basis. We kind of stay put up here in the office area, and only go down as needed and vice versa. If my car chief needs to come up and ask questions, he does that. We are definitely doing a good job of wearing the masks and social distancing, all the proper protocols from that point of view, but our group currently does typically work from the shop.”
Good to have you back at your home track. What would it mean for you to win at Kentucky Speedway and do you stay in touch with the people from St. Xavier?
“I do a little bit. The alumni association did a story on me last year that I thought was incredibly flattering. I don’t view myself as any different than anybody else that came from there, but they cared enough to write up a really nice article on me which was awesome. As far as winning in Kentucky, it would certainly mean a lot. Like I said before, my roots at Kentucky Speedway really go back to the old Blue Oval Speedway back in Louisville where I grew up, just four minutes down the road from. The ownership – that owned Louisville when that track closed down built Kentucky Speedway – it no longer is in that ownership group – but I know the linage from a child. So, when I go back there, all of that is tied together in my memory, so it definitely makes it a different race track than all the rest for me.”
Looking towards the All-Star Race, what do you feel as a team you need to do better at Bristol this time around?
“Yeah, well Bristol is another one that I look forward to get back there for a little redemption. We won the fall race last year and were inside of 12 to go from winning this one. We felt like we had it in the bag, as well. Denny (Hamlin) was just trying to stretch his lead a little bit to give us some buffer in lap traffic and stepped over the line as it’s so easy to do in Bristol and got in the fence and ultimately, that was the end of our race. So, I know Denny will be hungry to win the All-Star, get back to Bristol and sort of get back on the right foot. We’ve had really good cars there lately, and the All-Star at Bristol is going to present a lot different feel than it does at Charlotte. We need to be the first team to capitalize on that because it’s going to be much different race.”
There will be different rules (cone rule, lighting); what are your thoughts on that?
“I think the cone rule is neat. You won’t see the finished product I think because it will take everybody a little getting used to in terms of logistics of how to make it work as smoothly as possible, but I think the underlying sentiment is a good one. I think it certainly depends on the racetrack onto how much it would shake things up. But, hey, at the sport’s top level all of these guys know how hard it is to pass. I think in the end what you will see is everybody’s going to try to get as close to the pace car as possible. The first two or three rows might look a little different – I should say the first four or five positions – dependent on the choices, but after that I’m pretty sure these drivers will be trying to get as close to the pace car as possible.”
It seems that the 11 team is a step ahead of the other teams at Joe Gibbs Racing. Is there something that is aiding that?
“It’s hard for me to speak towards the other teams, but I will certainly say that our group it feels like it’s a very refined process. It’s not an accident that we’re running the way we are. We do the same things every week. We are very meticulous with details, and right now that chemistry is working, but again, it’s so much about adaptability. The next change is going inevitably come, whether that is a rule change or practice comes back or an organization will all of a sudden find some speed, and we are forced to start chasing that organization or the race lengths change or whatever it may be. We are going to go to the ROVAL in Daytona and all of those variables produce change that could affect that chemistry but right now our group is just hitting on all eight and really paying attention to all of the details. I think it’s showing for sure.”
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