DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Coming down to the finish of the 62nd annual Daytona 500 Monday night, crew chief Chris Gabehart wasn’t sure what tricks his driver Denny Hamlin had left up his sleeve.
After all, Hamlin was the only Toyota driver left in a sea of seven Ford Mustangs among the top eight heading into a double-overtime restart to conclude NASCAR’s biggest event.
But as it turned out, a little luck and a well-timed side-draft on Hamlin’s part were enough to propel the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry past Ryan Blaney and into victory lane, earning both Hamlin and Gabehart a second-straight Daytona 500 triumph.
Hamlin edged out Blaney by .014 seconds in the second-closest finish in the history of The Great American Race to open up his second NASCAR Cup Series season working with Gabehart.
For the crew chief in question, he was quick to note his good fortune at being paired with Hamlin in the first place, let alone the fact that the duo has now topped NASCAR’s biggest race in back-to-back years.
“I told somebody coming up pit road, I’m not going to buy any lottery tickets for the rest of my life,” Gabehart joked during the post-race winner’s press conference. “I think it’s amazing that I’ve won my second in as many Daytona 500s as a crew chief. A lot of people don’t even get a chance to win one.
“But for me personally, this one is honestly way more special for me,” he continued. “The first one was my first race as crew chief for the (No.) 11 FedEx Camry with Denny, and you just have so many great resources behind you, it’s really just riding the wave from all of that. I was trying to figure out what was going on, and I felt like Denny and the team were doing all the work, to be honest with you.
“That one I felt very, very lucky to receive.”
This time, however, there was as much or more skill involved than there was luck.
Hamlin stayed up front most of the afternoon, strategically finding his way to the front at the start of the second stage on Monday and leading a race-high 79 laps of the 209 run at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
It was a quietly-dominant performance the likes of which Hamlin and Gabehart have become known for lately, with the duo having won seven of the last 37 races in the NASCAR Cup Series together.
Monday was just the crowning achievement of a run that Gabehart said gives him a firm place among the best crew chiefs in the NASCAR Cup Series garage area.
“The way I look at it, 365 days later and after putting together the season that we put together in 2019 as a team … with me being fortunate enough to be asked to lead that team, this one is so much more valuable to me,” Gabehart noted. “I feel like I’ve earned this one. I feel like I belong now.
“I feel like this team is capable of excellence, and this one means a lot more to me personally.”