Denny Hamlin says he and crew chief Chris Gabehart are “plugging away” at the revised 2019 rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Hamlin rallied to score the 33rd win of his Cup career by 2.743-seconds over Clint Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing in the 23rd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Me and Chris are still trying to learn each other and figure out what each other need,” Hamlin said Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, after he and Gabehart collaborated for an improbable victory. “Each week we’re learning more and more.”
En route to their second victory of the season, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates learned they could overcome a pair of pit road penalties and stave off the sweep-minded agenda of Kyle Busch with the aid of a fast race car.
“Our car was really, really fast. A super-fast car,” said Hamlin, referring to his No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota Camry. “Certainly, we had a great car all day. Just a bunch of hiccups in the middle of it. We were fast enough to overcome everything that kind of got thrown at us.”
Hamlin passed pit road while running on fumes, then was penalized for speed too fast on his ensuing stop on Lap 64 during Stage 1; used a gas-only pit stop under green to gain track position en route to his Stage 2 victory at Lap 170 before incurring an uncontrolled tire penalty entering the Stage 3.
“We tried every way we could to give it away,” said Hamlin, who scored his third Cup win at TMS but first since sweeping both events in 2010. “I was just beating my head against the steering wheel thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to finish bad with a really fast car.’ Chris kept doing a good job of encouraging us we had a long way to go. We kept passing cars, passing cars. I think at some point we passed everyone, for sure.”
“I think you passed 327 cars, by my count,” said Gabehart, sharing the post-race dais with Hamlin and team-owner Joe Gibbs.
Hamlin led on three occasions for 45 laps, taking the point for the final time from Austin Dillon and his No. 3 Realtree Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on Lap 323. Hamlin had completed his final green flag pit stop for fuel-only on Lap 320.
“Really, the only time our car struggled handling-wise was when we were in the pack of three or four with our teammates,” said Hamlin, a veteran of 477 Cup starts. “Once we got the clean air in the front, the No. 20 (of teammate Erik Jones) pulled off for his pit stop (on Lap 304), it allowed me to be more aggressive with the way I was driving. Then we made a really good adjustment there at the end that got our car better.”
Hamlin opened the 2019 season with a victory in the Daytona 500 _ NASCAR’s Super Bowl _ after going winless in 2018.
“When you get past Daytona, that was amazing,” said Hamlin, a 38-year-old native of Virginia. “But all the other tracks, I feel like we’ve gotten better and better and fast every single week. I think a lot of that is him (Gabehart) trying to figure out my style, me trying to adapt to this style of racing.”
Sunday’s race was the first around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval contested under NASCAR’s reduced horsepower/increased downforce rules package designed to promote closer racing, more passing and a better show for fans in the stands and on TV.
“I’m learning as a driver. I’m still learning,” Hamlin said. “I mean, this is a complete different style of racing than what I used to do in the past. I have to adapt. Seems like I’m adapting quickly.”
Gabehart insisted he and Hamlin haven’t “optimized” their program after seven of 36 events.
“That’s encouraging now,” Gabehart said. “You’re racing against the best teams in the world. It’s difficult to have a flawless race. It’s not an easy thing, It’s one thing to identify, it’s another to fix it. That’s something we got to work on.
“The exciting thing is we never leave the racetrack guessing where we could have did it better. So in that regard we definitely haven’t reached our potential.”
Bowyer’s runnerup result saved his weekend following an incident during Friday’s group qualifying session. Bowyer and his No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang were knocked out during the first of three sessions when he felt Ryan Newman had blocked his attempt to exit pit road for a hot lap.
“We definitely ‘unclogged’ ourselves from qualifying,” Bowyer said with a laugh, referring to his post-qualifying rant. “All in all, our car handled good. It wasn’t lightning-fast all day long, but as they started slip-sliding around and struggling we’d kind of prevail on those long runs. That was our M.O.
“Denny, he was relatively fast all weekend long _ top of the sheet _ so we just weren’t really. Anytime you finish second it’s like, ‘What could I have done?’ But second is not bad for the way our weekend started.”
Rounding out the top-10 were JGR’s Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, pole-sitter/seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports, William Byron of HMS, Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick of SHR, Kurt Busch of Chip Ganassi Racing and Kyle Busch.
The winner of Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Saturday’s Xfinity Series races, “Rowdy” Busch saw his bid for a third tripleheader weekend sweep sabotaged by a brush with the wall exiting Turn 2 on Lap 276 of the scheduled 334.
The race-leader at that point, Busch fell to fourth and was forced to pit for right side tires on Lap 282. That stop put him a lap down at a point when 15 cars were running on the lead lap.
“It just broke loose,” said Busch, a two-time Cup winner this season who led a race-high 66 laps in his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota. “I kind of felt it getting a little bit freer as we were going there, and you’re still trying to hustle as hard as you can and get all you can through the corners in order to keep your lap time going…and it just busted loose on me, and I had to catch it and make sure we didn’t crash. First and foremost, we did that, and then I got back in line and got rolling and started gaining back on those guys in front of us, but the looseness was still there, and then I had to chase it on exit of (Turn) 2 one time behind the No. 10 (Almirola) and just knocked the fence down.
“I hate it for my guys. We made an adjustment there to tighten it up going into that run, and we got looser. Just something to learn from there.”
Despite that disappointment, Busch retained his championship lead by eight points over Hamlin (310-302) heading to Bristol Motor Speedway’s half-mile bullring next weekend.