Transcripts: Denny Hamlin & Chris Gabehart – Press Conference – 3.31.2024

THE MODERATOR: We are joined by our race-winning driver, Denny Hamlin, and our race-winning crew chief, Chris Gabehart.

If you have a question…

Q. Denny, how do you want to be remembered 20 years from now?

DENNY HAMLIN: Just back in the day, it was always to be just a local short track hero at Southside Speedway. I wanted to be a guy, every time I went to the track, got on the track, people would grab their stopwatch because they knew I was going to be someone that he had to beat.

I don’t know. Just respected. Just someone that could win at all types of racetracks. I haven’t really thought about it from kind of what happens long after you’re gone. But you hope to set marks and records that stand for a long time or it’s always in the conversation of someone that’s won at a track many, many times.

Just want to be a contender, one of those good stories from local short tracks to making it to the big-time and winning a lot of races.

Q. Denny, Martin said he felt like you jumped the restart. NASCAR said that you didn’t. Curious, what is the strategy in trying to go right there when you can?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I mean, I went right at it, for sure. I did that because I saw those guys rolling to me. The 22 was laying back. The 19 was rolling a couple miles an hour quicker than I was. I wasn’t going to let them have an advantage that my team earned on pit road.

Certainly made sure I went to my nose, got there. But I took off right away. Still, we were side by side down the water into turn one.

Q. Chris, what did you think of how NASCAR handled the non-competitive pit stops and the wet weather tire situation? Did you feel when they had non-competitive pit stops, did you feel like if they had competitive pit stops at the time, it would have been an unsafe situation for your crew?

CHRIS GABEHART: If it tells you anything, when Sirius interviewed me in Victory Lane, I just realized we had won the first-ever oval race that started in rain, points race. Honestly, to me hats off. I thought it all went pretty seamlessly and exactly like they advertised they wanted to do it.

It was nerve-wracking for all of us because we had never done it before. There was points and a lot on the line. You’ve got to watch the radar. NASCAR is trying to communicate to the teams when are we going to go, how is all this going to work. They told us it would be situational, whether it would be competitive pit stops or not. At lot of logistics that has to be covered for the teams and NASCAR.

Honestly, I thought it went seamless. I thought it did exactly what they wanted it to do.

Q. What did you think of the quality of racing in stages two and three? Stage one was wet weather.

DENNY HAMLIN: It was tough. I mean, obviously we were all just kind of running in a train there 1-2-3. It was really hard to pass, for sure. We were all kind of running the same speed. As soon as you get your tires hot, you just can’t go anywhere.

I didn’t think it was much different than what we had in the past. Yeah, I don’t know. It wasn’t overwhelming, for sure. It was definitely a track-position race. Seemed like there were about four to five guys, you put them in the front, they were going to be hard to pass.

That’s just kind of what we got. It was up to us to just stay close. The team had an opportunity to do something great there by running me long. We caught those guys. Even with 10-lap tires, couldn’t pass ’em. We got there really quick. I was amazed how quick we got there, but we just stalled out.

It’s tough because you kind of look at the difference in Bristol and here, dramatic tire falloff and wear. He sent me some wear things last night. The like I said tires just don’t wear as much as they need to to get big, big falloff. We’re all pretty much running the same speed. Even lap cars, if they want to make it tough on you, they can hold you up.

It’s difficult. It takes all parts of the team, like a pit crew, to get your wins when it’s like that.

CHRIS GABEHART: Yeah, I mean, I would echo that.

For me, I’m lost in a Richmond race. When I say that, there’s so much that goes into the strategy of a Richmond race. That’s a lot of fun, but you got to stay on top of it. It goes green, the car is parked in your box, 40 laps, 55 laps, depending on what you do, you have to mix that nuance up throughout the race based on the situation and based on how your car’s running. There’s a lot to it.

I was more so locked into what I needed to do to try to gain us the advantage to try to leapfrog the last few cars to evaluate from the perspective that you’re trying to get me to evaluate it.

Honestly, I thought it was a great race, but it’s a great Richmond race. I don’t know how well that gets transmitted to everyone.

Q. You’re both short track guys. The history of this race is what you described it as. Knowing that, not well received by fans, does this track continue to deserve two races each year?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think where else you going to go, right? NASCAR owns it, so there’s going to want to go to another NASCAR track. If they have another NASCAR track, that’s already got a date as well, so…

I don’t know what else you do. Certainly it’s not fair because I’m biased and have grown up loving this racetrack, so I’m always going to vote for it to have two races, for sure.

I thought today nobody really ran out too far. I think we’ve seen some Richmond races where some guys get way out there at times when they kind of hit it. We were all just in a wad there for 150 laps or so. A couple car lengths here and there.

From NASCAR’s point of view, they wanted us all in the picture on the TV. It probably was a great race from that standpoint.

Q. Can you provide some insight into what makes your over-the-wall guys so consistent, clearly better than everyone else’s? Something in the preparation or skill set?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think just from my standpoint, these guys have had time to mesh. They’ve had a few years now working together. The whole pit crew department really went through a lot of changes over the last couple years. It’s starting to show fruit.

My team, I was looking at kind of the average ages of all the pit crews, mine is definitely on the lower end when you average all the ages up. For them to now be on top of their game and be young, they’re right there at the top already. Who knows how far they can go.

There’s a lot to it when you can get people working together. It’s no different than mine and Chris’ relationship. Over time you get to understanding each other, you know their next move.

I think certainly with a pit crew that’s got a lot of choreographed stuff that they have to do, everyone’s watching each other’s toes, not stepping on each other, having that group working together for so long, it’s starting to show what it can do.

CHRIS GABEHART: Yeah, I’m the engineer, but he did a great job of quantifying — a lot of the quantifiable stuff honestly. I don’t want to diminish that.

Joe Gibbs Racing took a path in the Gen 7 era that just honestly didn’t work. At a sport’s top level, when you fall behind and there’s constant improvement being had by all the top teams, it’s difficult to catch up. There’s a chance you won’t.

I can’t brag on the pit department enough, all the management at Joe Gibbs Racing, and the guys, all the athletes, not just my athletes, for buying in to the work and effort that was going to have to be put forth to catch up.

Really what I want to speak to is the intangibles because that’s where magic happens. It’s people that believe that they can do more than they can as individuals.

My team, not just my pit crew, my team, they pull the rope selflessly. They have know they got each other’s backs. If you have a bad play or mistake, everybody is there to pick ’em up. How can we help you be better? What do you need? That’s the special part. You see it in sports, all different types of sports.

This group has all of the makings to put up the kind of numbers they’re putting up. It’s just so fun to watch ’em have fun. Again, that’s the 18 people I have on my roster. Just to watch the pit crew get to win a race like that, that’s their walk-off home run. It doesn’t get any better than that for a pit crew to win it like that. It’s just a joy to watch everybody working like this together.

Q. Chris, the decision to run long at the end, was there an option to split the final stage?

CHRIS GABEHART: I just lost count of the laps (smiling).

No, it’s Richmond. That’s what I love about it. The previous stop in that race, we opened the stint. We were the first ones to come. There’s certain things that I look for at this track that are very well-known and understood.

I was honestly caught off guard a little bit by when our competition pit for the second time. Again, the relationship and the trust. I’m sure when they peeled off when they did, a part of him is thinking, Here we go again.

DENNY HAMLIN: I knew what you were thinking.

CHRIS GABEHART: Put it on my back, carry me back to the front (smiling).

But it’s numbers. It’s math. He feeds off all that. He understands the analytics that goes into it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make the right decision every time, but it really takes that buy-in.

It’s a chess match out there. You can make one wrong move that will hurt the next 60 laps. I thought for sure we had it, to be honest with you, as that last run was starting to unfold.

There was one very particular reason that we didn’t that he and I talked briefly about. Wasn’t anything he did. It was some gamesmanship by some damn smart racers in front of us. The math should have worked out and it didn’t. That’s why Richmond is awesome.

We found another way to win it. When that caution came out, I knew we was right back in the game.

THE MODERATOR: Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS GABEHART: Thank you.

THE MODERATOR: We’ll continue with Denny.

Q. Talk about the significance of winning at your home track and it being Easter Sunday.

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, it’s special. Seems like a long time since my kids have been able to enjoy Victory Lane. Having friends and family all here, certainly it means a lot.

We did a little special thing with Toyota yesterday up in the grandstands, sat in the seats that my mom still has. She has had season tickets for about 30 years now. Same area. Just sit in those seats.

I see the highlights from the ’90s and the 2000s when I was watching races at this track. Really appreciated the techniques of what some of the great drivers did around here. Now that I get to do it myself, it’s just really fun. To be part of it, be on the other side of the fence 20 some years later, it means a lot to me.

Add on top of that, it’s a Toyota owners race, so Toyota was dominating. Martin was going to be the one that takes it if it goes green. We were able to do it because of that caution, so…

It’s special. Each one of the wins were special in certain ways. Any one of the Richmond wins always has a special place.

Q. 85 laps to go, you are in third place. What was the decision that went into make things happen to get you towards the front?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, Chris made obviously a strategic decision there to pit later than what the other two did. They peeled off. When he didn’t say anything to me for one lap, I knew what my job was at that point, and that was to be a machine, just run the fastest laps I could on those old tires to maximize lap time to then give us as shot to have better tires and run those guys down once we came back out.

Again, he talked about it. It’s kind of a math equation on what the right time to pit is. He felt like the decision they made was a little bit too early, so he stuck to his game plan. We were going to net out the same position anyway had that caution not came.

It certainly I thought was the right call. We just kept ourselves close enough in the game. When you have those opportunities where your pit crew can win you the race, it happens.

I spent the last three years counting on both hands and feet races that sometimes the pit crew didn’t necessarily help us that day, and we probably lost races because of it. We’re starting to get those back now because we’ve got a team that’s really, really strong. They deserve it. I’m just lucky to be part of their team today because that’s what got me the win.

Q. A few days ago you mentioned concerns about how NASCAR implements their rules and points and penalties. After a few days, do you rethink some of those words? Do you feel any of that played into the decisions today?

DENNY HAMLIN: It was groundbreaking for sure. It certainly made me nervous because I mentioned it in FOX early on in the pre-race, I’m probably part of the 30% of the field that thinks they can win in the dry. When you put the wet out there, you’re going to have the other 70% that are thinking, This is my opportunity to jump out there and get myself a lead, put myself in a chance to win.

I’m probably going to be a little more timid in the wet because I know this thing is eventually going to go dry, and I just need to make sure I’m still on the racetrack when it comes to being dry.

Yeah, it was crazy that it all turned out the way it did. I was able to hold my track position pretty good. I thought they executed it as good as they could. It wasn’t raining outside. They made sure the track was straight damp, not a bunch of spray coming off the tires. I thought it was executed exactly how they planned.

Q. You mentioned Southside Speedway. In recent months there’s been a huge push to bring it back. Have you considered getting involved to bring it back? Have you heard anything from local fans in terms of, Hey, you mentioned being remembered as a hero, you’re our Chesterfield hero? Have you heard that from fans?

DENNY HAMLIN: Yeah, I’d like to for sure. I would love to be a part of it. I think those are bigger conversations for the state and the county as to how much they’re willing to invest.

It needs some up-fitting. It needs a few million dollars worth of upgrades to get it back on track and back on par for other short tracks.

I’d love to be a part of it. I’d be happy to run it for the city or the county. As far as investing my own money in it, it’s just very, very hard, unless you’re going to build a multi-use facility there, which is what needs to be done. You can’t rely on running one night a week and that place survive. You have to have go-karts there, concerts, all kinds of different stuff that people can do.

Certainly that area has grown up tremendously over the last decade or two. It’s in a prime location. It’s just a matter whether the city or state wants to put funding behind it to keep it going.

Q. To the point of what you said about your pit crew, everything is closer, how satisfying is it for you to know whenever you come down, you’re not going to lose anything, likely gain something, and they kind of won you tonight?

DENNY HAMLIN: They did. Tonight was them, for sure. I feel like I just went through a two-year period in 2020 maybe, 2021, where every time I am came down pit road I was terrified. Please, only lose one spot. It was bad for a really long time.

It’s just finally turned the page and we’re going the other way now. These guys have been together I think for three consecutive years now. They were on Martin’s team a few years ago, but they were young and making a lot of mistakes that first year. The pit crews and the drivers got together and they wanted to make changes. I ended up with those guys at really the right time, right when they were starting to all click on all cylinders.

I was certainly torn because it looked like Martin was going to win. When the caution came out, I wasn’t crazy overjoyed because I think about all the bad times on pit road. Man, I just had a good finish, now we have an opportunity to go backwards.

I knew if I maximized my job on pit road. There’s so many metrics that go into being good yellow line to yellow line on pit road. The pit crew is a big part of it. Me as a driver, doing my job with my pit road speed, how I enter the box, how I exit the box, all that really mattered.

I knew about halfway through the stop when they dropped the jack on the right side in about three and a half seconds, I thought, Oh, boy, this is going to be a fast one. I knew it was going to be really close.

I knew at that point just don’t stall the car. That would have been the most embarrassing thing I could have possibly done is take the win from them if I made that kind of mistake. We still have to race it out on the green-white-checkered.

This is certainly the new age NASCAR of how you can win races because it is so equal on the racetrack that really the pit crew is the ones that make a difference when everyone is running the same speed.

Q. Did you pick Purdue in your Final Four for him?

DENNY HAMLIN: I have them winning.

Q. For him?

DENNY HAMLIN: Not because of him. I like them. I only filled out one bracket. It was for 23XI employees. They’re not going to beat UConn, but at least it’s a shot.

Q. You went through the tunnel on the front straightaway, saw something that a fan left. Are you going to take that way going out?

DENNY HAMLIN: No, I don’t think so. I was doing something on the frontstretch. Jared reminded me that picture that he showed me, the tunnel is right there, so I wanted to go see it.

I thought it was interesting to see everyone saying blank was here. A lot of other slogans that you can’t really say that were on the wall. It’s fans just enjoying. Same reason they write all over the walls on the start/finish line. Their way to leave a mark at the racetrack.

I enjoyed it. To have kind of your own picture in the tunnel, you’re in Victory Lane, certainly is special, especially at this track.

Q. With the fact there wasn’t much rain afterwards, they probably could have dried the whole track, start 40 minutes later, not have a long caution. From a driver standpoint, your owner hat, is it to get cars on the track, people are watching at home?

DENNY HAMLIN: I think they wanted it to be wet. I say that because there was no jet driers out there. They had the option to use jet driers and they did not. I think they wanted to try this out. This is probably the right track to do it.

I’m glad we didn’t all just pile up in the corner. Everyone was kind of patient the first few laps. I think it played out just how they wanted it.

Q. You’re okay with that?

DENNY HAMLIN: I was okay with it. People immediately will ask, Well, surely you can do this everywhere? You cannot do it any track that we run faster than this one.

It was just uncomfortable enough entering done one at those speeds with it being wet. It was executed just how they wanted. I thought the drivers did it perfectly.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you.

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