- Denny Hamlin, JGR Toyota, Race Winner
- Chris Gabehart, Winning Crew Chief
THE MODERATOR: We have now been joined by Chris Gabehart. Congratulations on that victory. We appreciate you spending some time with us.
We’ll go ahead and take questions.
It sounds like Denny was pointing to this race a year ago where you hit on something. Close before, but never got the right breaks. Can you share any insight that was different?
CHRIS GABEHART: Yeah, we definitely did. Vegas, reaching back to the spring race in 2020, was really kind of the last track that he and I hadn’t hit on together. I just hadn’t found exactly what we needed. It was definitely a struggle for us, excluding like Charlotte road course, those kind of things. It was kind of, of the meat and potato tracks, the last one we haven’t got hold of.
We came back in the fall with a game plan, really worked on certain areas of simulation, things that I really felt like we needed to be good at to be good here. It panned out.
Since then it’s been our north star. With Denny and I and this race team at every track, once we lock in on whatever it is we need, we’ve been fortunate to duplicate that for the most part. Now it’s been so different at Vegas.
Two wins in the first four races of the Playoffs. How dangerous is this race team?
CHRIS GABEHART: Well, it’s just such an advantage to win any race in the Playoffs, but certainly the first race of any round because, especially this round, you look at Talladega and Charlotte, you can’t stress enough. Every one of these race teams are professional so they deal with the stress and the pressure. They handle it. But it’s there. It exists. You can’t look past it, it’s real. We’ve only had to deal with that for what will be two of the first six races of the Playoffs.
Certainly our team’s been really capable all year long. Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It’s really been our best year together thus far. You stay up front as much as we have, the wins are going to finally come. They’re coming at the right time.
How much does this win mean to be able to not have to worry about wild card races like Talladega and the Roval?
CHRIS GABEHART: It really can’t be overemphasized. With the exception of the 5 car coming into the night, really no team was safe. I mean, the cut line was in the teens from the car that was the most safe other than the 5, and we were one of them at 11 I think it was.
It really can’t be overstated. Again, these race teams at this level, they’re all professionals. They deal with pressure so well. It’s just part of the job in pro sports. If there’s a competitor out there, a team out there, that’s not having to deal with that pressure, it’s a big advantage. I’m happy it’s the 11 car.
You said you’re going to be up all night. What is the party going to be like?
CHRIS GABEHART: I don’t know if we’re going to be up all night or not. I guarantee I’ve got enough energy to do it at the moment.
I just can’t think of a better place to win. Southern 500 at Darlington is huge. This was statistically Denny’s worst racetrack. For us to be able to triumph here and do it consistently now. I mean, we had the best car here a year ago, a really good car this spring, certainly had a top two car tonight. It just shows what this race team is capable of. I’m proud of it.
Denny, what about you, what is the party going to be like?
DENNY HAMLIN: I can’t hear.
CHRIS GABEHART: He’s asking what your party in Las Vegas is going to be like.
DENNY HAMLIN: I can’t tell you that. I’m debating 50/50 whether I’m staying or going. We’ll see. I’m not sure. I got to get the kids from school tomorrow so I got to still somewhat be a little bit responsible.
THE MODERATOR: We are now also joined by our race-winning driver Denny Hamlin.
We’ll continue with questions.
Chris, the Hendrick guys looked good early on. The Hendrick guys stayed out there when Denny came in. Did that give you pause or were you confident enough to know you were doing the right thing?
CHRIS GABEHART: No, I was confident we were doing the right thing. It was just really at a critical point in the stage where it wasn’t obvious that it opened a window for everyone. But it turned out that that’s the way it played out. That was right at the edge of our fuel window. After you run a few cautions, it’s going to put us well within it.
It’s rare when you can look to one singular point in the race and that that was the turning point in the race, but it really was. Hendrick cars are always strong at these tracks. I’m not saying we weren’t good. We were certainly capable. That gave us the leg up that we needed to take control of the race.
Denny, Hendrick Motorsports has been praised as the team to beat on these 550 horsepower racetracks. What does your win say about where this organization is on the mile-and-a-half tracks? Was this performance over strategy?
DENNY HAMLIN: I thought through the summer months we made some gains on the 550 tracks. That’s really kind of been our bread and butter for the 11 FedEx team of my first two years of my relationship with Chris. I think we really put a lot of emphasis in the off-season trying to get better at the 750s. Chris knows I don’t like to suck on short tracks, so they put a lot of emphasis on that.
It’s really hard to be great everywhere, but we try. We try the best we can to do that. But they’ve just been really, really strong obviously. They’re able to do great things with their cars, especially in traffic, that is very, very hard to replicate.
We’re still taking steps and strides forward I believe to try to match ’em. Again, it’s very, very close. I never thought that we’ve been worse than a third- to fourth-place car on these tracks all year long. It’s just today we kind of finished the deal.
Chris, locked into the Round of 8, at what point do you start looking at Phoenix and putting a car aside?
CHRIS GABEHART: Well, I think every major organization looks to Phoenix. We’re blessed to have a lot of capable people in our company that can multi-task, I guess we’ll say. Certainly through the first six races our team’s only going to — only being stressed for two of them, are able to take some more focus and put it elsewhere. That’s a huge advantage. Can’t be understated. Definitely looking forward to doing it at that time, I can tell you that.
Denny, you’ve been adamant you can win races all year. Two wins now in the first four races. How much more confidence does that give you?
DENNY HAMLIN: Well, my crew chief would say I missed out on two more wins in the first round. We should have won all of ’em. I can’t disagree, we probably should have won every race so far in the Playoffs. I guess I heard out there we led a third of all the laps so far in the Playoffs. We’re good.
We knew that this is what we’re capable of. Really we’ve shown this all year long. It shows in laps led, top fives, top 10s. For whatever reason, whether it be bad luck, mistakes on our own, we haven’t got all the bunches of wins that we’ve had in the past.
Hopefully this is the start of a really good run.
(Question about the caution.)
CHRIS GABEHART: Again, the caution fell right on the edge. NASCAR opened the pit road really, really quickly. It didn’t give the teams a lot of time to sort of think through the what ifs of it all. You really had to be ready with your car right away, go with good instinct. I think I only got the call to Denny once on the car, why we exactly needed to pit.
To be honest with you, the pit crew had to adjust on the fly. I told Denny we needed to pit for fuel. Pit road is open. We’re coming down pit road. I told the pit crew what we’re doing. It just happened that fast.
It really was the turning point of the race. Certainly the extra caution, which you know in the back of your mind you’re going to get them. It’s not when you pit, it’s how many caution laps you’re going to get after you pit, what does that do to your fuel window.
The way this worked out, there wasn’t much time to think through all of that. I was very confident it was the right call or opened up options for us. Where we were able to cash in is what played out, and that was that the stage went the rest of the way green. Can’t be happier that it did.
Denny, do you feel with the way you’ve run the last four races you should be considered the favorite, not Larson?
DENNY HAMLIN: I don’t care. Nothing matters. You have to play to the game. It doesn’t matter who’s the favorite. You have to play. Again, we were dominant last year. Harvick was dominant last year. He didn’t even make the Final 4. We squeaked in and finished fourth. That’s all we had for car speed.
I just think it’s so hard to predict. This championship is made in one race. It’s so different than it used to be. Our goals going into the year is to make the Final 4 because it’s really, really hard to predict what can happen in one particular race.
But favorite? I don’t know. I like our chances on a Phoenix-type track, that’s for sure.
Harvick and Chase had their big brouhaha last week and continued today. Do you enjoy watching Harvick try to get into people’s heads?
DENNY HAMLIN: Honestly, Harvick’s kind of mind games was more so earlier in his career. I think he was just generally pissed off last week and this week. I just think he probably legitimately had a gripe.
I can’t condone one way or another. He had a gripe and he voiced it.
Do you play a selfish game at Talladega and go for as many stage points as you can get or play the teammate role?
DENNY HAMLIN: We’ll discuss that this week. Honestly from my standpoint it’s a free pass to go there and try to lead every lap, win the race.
I mean, last year we were so fortunate because we had a good Las Vegas race, a lot of bonus points, we were able to lay in the back the entire race. We were 29th, 23rd or something on the first green-white-checkered, then won the race. I don’t know. That’s a tough race to get through. There’s always a lot of attrition.
Again, it’s another week where there’s nothing to lose, all to gain.
Denny, this is your first win at Las Vegas. What does that mean to you?
DENNY HAMLIN: It’s another track we can cross off the list. There was a point here where I never thought I would even sniff a victory. We found a setup and — I shouldn’t say ‘we’, I didn’t do anything. The team has found a setup that has worked with my driving style. I know that me and Chris really work hard on trying to shore up any deficiencies that we have or I have as a driver.
I go to work on it, the team goes to work on what they need to give me to go fast. I try to give them the best information that I can. They take that information, they put their brains together and they come up with something that works.
Really the last two years they’ve really changed the game for me at this racetrack. Again, it means a lot to cross off Las Vegas as a track that we won at now.
Denny, I asked your crew chief earlier how does this win help kind of ease the pressure of the wild cards like Talladega and the Roval.
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, I already planned on a lot of prep time for the Roval. It’s a track that I have struggled at over the years for whatever reason. Listen, I’m still professional. I still want to go out there and win the next two weeks. There is no reason for us to take any weeks off. We don’t take any weeks off. We were battling for the regular-season championship for the last 10 weeks of the regular season. We’ve been in Playoff mode for quite a while now. I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what ifs of what can happen that can take you out.
During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the what ifs actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.
What does this win at Las Vegas do for you now that you’re safely into the Round of 8 and Kansas is another mile-and-a-half coming up?
DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly some things we can learn from this racetrack that we can take to Kansas. I’m sure we’ll study this racetrack quite a bit and figure out still how we could be better than what we are and apply those things towards Kansas.
Certainly there’s a lot of parallels you can draw between the two. It’s very encouraging from my standpoint.
THE MODERATOR: Denny, congratulations again on the win, essentially punching your ticket into the next round.