Moments before what turned out to be the final restart of the 2019 Daytona 500, Fox Sports’ Regan Smith snagged a quick interview with Denny Hamlin’s rookie crew chief, Chris Gabehart. And it was fascinating insight into all that was to come in 2019 for the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry.
Smith reminded viewers of the team’s early-race fueling issues, since diagnosed and fixed. Then he inquires after the nerves of a man on top a NASCAR Cup Series pit box for just the second time in his career in the most significant moment of his career to date — by some distance. Gabehart had previously stepped in for Mike Wheeler for the final race of the 2017 regular season at Richmond Raceway; Hamlin started second and finished fifth, never leading a lap.
“Honestly, same as I told you before, my nerves really aren’t that bad,”Gabehart countered, looking more like a man sitting on his favorite park bench on a Sunday afternoon, perusing the sports section of the paper, than a rookie head wrench whose driver was just about to lead the field to an overtime green flag in NASCAR’s crown jewel race.
“I mean, you’ve got a group as talented as these guys around you, and Denny Hamlin at a speedway race, really any race… on the front row of these speedway races multiple, multiple times over the last few years,” he said. “There’s a reason why. It’s either gonna work out or it’s not, but I feel pretty good about the FedEx Toyota Camry right now.”
Two breathless laps later, Hamlin was Daytona 500 champion for the second time in three years and Gabehart had the picture-perfect start for himself, his driver, his team, his owner and the memory of JD Gibbs, who had passed away a little over a month prior to the race.
“Awesome job, Chris, team, I’m really proud of you guys,” he said, soaking it all in on the cool-down lap. “It’s going to be a great year.”
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 18, 2019
And so, it was a great year for Hamlin even if the season ultimately fell short of the long-awaited goal of a maiden Cup championship.
His fourth-place points finish was his 11th top-10 finish in the overall season standings in 14 seasons and the fifth time he finished in the top five. In fact, the only poor finish Hamlin had was 23rd in 2013 when he missed four races with fractured back.
After winning just five races in three seasons (2016-2018) and none last year for the first time in his career, Hamlin broke free with a six-win year. It was his second highest win total behind his eight-win 2010 season. He also finished with career highs in top fives (19, four better than ever before) and top 10s (24, two more than his best). His average finish of 9.5 was two full places lower than his previous best.
After the glory of another 500, Hamlin’s second win of the season came at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring, despite weathering not one but two pit road penalties. It was his third win at the track but the first since he swept both races in 2010.
It would be another four months before the No. 11 returned to victory lane, this time at an old favorite – Pocono Raceway. Hamlin picked up the first two wins of his career at the Tricky Triangle in his rookie season of 2006 but as with Texas hadn’t visited victory lane since 2010, a nine-year drought.
His fourth win came three races later at Bristol Motor Speedway, the second time the Chesterfield, Va., native has won the Bristol night race. What made the win a little unusual was the on-track interview with NBC Sports when he climbed out and immediately apologized to Matt DiBenedetto, a driver he has backed with his own dollars, and also to long-time friend and No. 11 OG, former crew chief Mike Wheeler.
A dominant victory in the final race of the second stage at Kansas Speedway, leading 143 laps, gave Hamlin five wins for the first time since the 2012 season and a tremendous platform heading into the crucial third stage. He put the No. 11 on the pole at Martinsville Speedway but couldn’t back it up with race speed, finishing a distant but respectable fourth behind Martin Truex Jr., who essentially eviscerated the field.
The second visit of the season to Texas, in race eight of the playoffs, proved to be Hamlin’s undoing. An unassisted slide coming out of turn 4 on lap 81 tore up his ride, relegating him to limping home in 28th, six laps down. While Hamlin didn’t have to win at ISM Raceway, mathematically speaking, his prospects outside of a trip to victory lane looked relatively bleak.
And with his season, one that had felt like it might just finally be his year at last for the first 34 races, on the precipice, Hamlin knew that he essentially had to win in race 35 just to give him the shot at race 36. Adding spice to the mix, Hamlin needed to accomplish this at a track at which his 2010 championship challenge faltered right at the critical moment, a true career low point.
Right from the first lap of practice, Hamlin looked to have a lightning fast ride. He qualified third and ran upfront all day, leading 132 of the final 136 laps. Hamlin also survived a late race restart, backed up by a gutsy two-tire call from Gabehart that keep him atop the pack. In the commentary booth, Steve LeTarte was apoplectic at what he thought was utterly the wrong decision. But despite a hard-charging Kyle Busch on four fresh tires, Hamlin held his nerve and got it done when it mattered the most. And with the win he laid to rest once and for all the ghosts of 2010, regardless of what was to come at Homestead-Miami Raceway
The following week in Miami, an aggressive and slightly unusual call for tape on the grill with Hamlin trailing only Busch by a relatively small margin with 58 laps to go saw the No. 11 overheat and need to pit off schedule. He never got the late caution he needed and finished 10th, fourth of the four championship challengers.
“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” Gabehart said. “You’ve got to dance with the fire to beat these guys. That’s what this race team does, but the problem with dancing with it is, every now and then you get burned.”
Off-track, Hamlin stepped up his social media game with some strong IG story work highlighting the best on and off track of on race-weekends in particular.
Hamlin also shared clips from his life outside of racin,g including his active golf and basketball leagues:
178 out. 7 iron. Buckets pic.twitter.com/aiet9ko66O
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) March 8, 2019
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) October 4, 2019
Perhaps, most importantly this year, after a winless 2018 and a couple of seasons where he was less competitive than he would have liked, Hamlin reminded everyone of his natural talent behind the wheel with a six-win season and what might just be a really potent and fruitful driver crew chief partnership. Yes, he might not have won the elusive championship in 2019, but you sense, even after 14 seasons and 37 wins, the best is yet to come.
36 starts, six wins, 19 top fives, 24 top 10s
Best finish: 1st, six times
Point standings: fourth
Season grade: A-