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Hamlin, new crew chief off to blistering start

Kevin Mays • Apr 6, 2019 at 5:31 PM

BRISTOL – Denny Hamlin and new crew chief Chris Gabehart are still in the learning phase as far as getting to know each other.

If the first seven races of the season are any indication, the two may want to keep each other at comfortable distance.

STILL ROOM TO GET BETTER

Gabehart has had a strong career as a crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, including two wins at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016 as the crew chief for Erik Jones — a current Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Hamlin.

Despite Hamlin and Gabehart still being in the early stages of working together, the JGR team has been on a tear.

The duo wasted little time in establishing the team as a contender for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship by opening the season with a win at the Daytona 500.

The win followed a winless 2018 season for Hamlin, his first season without a win in 13 years.

Through the first seven races of the season, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 six times, including wins at Daytona and last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Heading into Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin is second in the NASCAR points standing, just eight points behind Monster Energy series leader Kyle Busch.

Despite all the success through the early stage of the season, Hamlin said there’s still plenty of room to improve. And he and Gabehart have plenty to learn about each other. He points to the driver–crew chief working relationship between Busch and his crew chief Adam Stevens have as one to work toward.

“We’re not even close to the level of relationship that like Kyle and Adam are at and that’s where obviously you want to go with it,” said Hamlin. “We’re miles apart from them as far as that aspect, but we’re not miles apart as far as how we’re running right now.

The early-season success is great, but Hamlin knows that his team has to keep working on getting better as the year progresses and be at a point of peaking when the post-season rolls around in September.

“There’s a certain amount of playoff points you’d like to have going into the playoffs,” Hamlin said. “There’s a certain amount of wins you’d like to have. I don’t want to throw out a bunch of numbers. We’re getting there.”

WHAT HOT SEAT?

The early-season success has cooled down a hot seat that some NASCAR observers said Hamlin was on after a winless 2018 season.

Hamlin, who has won 33 NASCAR Cup races in his career, said the perceived “hot seat” he was on never really existed.

“Who says I’m on a hot seat? What do they know that I don’t?” Hamlin questioned. “That’s what I don’t understand. Like you don’t know my relationship with my sponsor and the team or anything. It’s just someone looking to say something and that’s fine.

“I know what I’m capable of. I know that I’ve got a great relationship with people that I’ve been partners with for a long time. Sometimes you just have off seasons and things just don’t happen for whatever reason. The sports’ greatest drivers have had those seasons before, but I’ve never really let my confidence get down on the whole thing. I’ve just been patient, waiting on it to kind of turn.

“I think Chris has come in with a little bit different philosophy on how we do things and I think it’s certainly forced me to change a few things in the way that I do things. And I think some of those have been a positive thing for me.

“I’ve never once thought that someone could go out there and do a better job than I could in my own car.”

KEEP MOVING ON

After last week’s win at Texas, a win at BMS would give Hamlin back-to-back wins, a feat he’s accomplished twice in his career. He won at Bristol and Atlanta in 2012 and at Pocono and Michigan in 2010.

The veteran driver will start fifth in Sunday’s Food City 500 at BMS.

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