• 45°

Crew chiefs feel the heat to be perfect as NASCAR reaches finale

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE — The NASCAR championship was in clear reach when Denny Hamlin made his final pit stop in last year’s title-deciding finale. With everything on the line, his crew chief went with an aggressive adjustment aimed at gaining one last burst of speed.

Chris Gabehart called for a large, thick patch of tape across the front right side of the No. 11 Toyota. It was a gamble Gabehart was willing to take, believing “you’ve got to dance with the fire to beat these guys.”

He got burned.

The aerodynamic adjustment backfired, Hamlin had to pit again to avoid overheating his engine, and his title chances were over. As Gabehart leads Hamlin back into the championship race Sunday, the crew chief has no fear of overthinking his team out of title contention.

“You’ve certainly got to learn from your mistakes and your successes, right? That’s part of getting better,” he said. “I’m not concerned of making those same issues again. For better or worse, we’re going to put our best foot forward, give Denny the best platform we can as a race team to go out and perform, then we’re going to let him perform.”

The pressure will be intense Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for both the drivers and their team leaders. There is no practice or qualifying under COVID-19 protocols, so the cars must be dialed-in when they are unloaded on race day.

The four-driver field this year includes two former champions: Joey Logano, who won in 2016 under this current format, and his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, won in 2012 under different rules. Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing is back in the final four for the third time and Chase Elliott is making his championship debut for Hendrick Motorsports.

Only Hamlin and Gabehart, in their second season as driver and crew chief, have previously raced for a championship together.

Paul Wolfe won the 2012 title with Keselowski but now crew chiefs Logano. Keselowski is in his first season with newcomer Jeremy Bullins, and Elliott is teamed with Alan Gustafson, who led Jeff Gordon in Gordon’s 2015 final four appearance.

Gustafson believes he can help Elliott manage the stakes of the winner-take-all final race as NASCAR’s most popular driver competes in his first championship.

“I don’t think you can really be prepared for it until you go through it,” said the veteran Hendrick Motorsports crew chief. “Going through this weekend, we can help prepare him for it. It’s a unique experience. I think you have to go through it to really understand it and learn how to manage it.”

The dynamic at Team Penske is interesting in that Logano and Keselowski both worked through the cornavirus-impacted season with new crew chiefs, having to learn their team leaders with little track time. The Penske organization made a three-team swap at the start of the year and Wolfe, the only crew chief in the finale with a title, is teamed with the only driver to win a championship in this format.

Comments

Nation/World

Senate Democrats strike deal on jobless aid, move relief bill closer to approval

News

Duke Life Flight pilot may have shut down wrong engine in fatal crash

News

Two NC counties get to participate in satellite internet pilot for students

Local

PETA protesters gather in front of police department

Coronavirus

Seven new COVID-19 deaths, 166 positives reported in county this week

Crime

Sheriff’s office: Two charged after suitcase of marijuana found in Jeep

Crime

Thomasville officer hospitalized after chase that started in Rowan County

Local

Board of elections discusses upgrading voting machines, making precinct changes

News

Lawmakers finalize how state will spend COVID-19 funds

Local

Salisbury Station one of several ‘hot spots’ included in NCDOT rail safety study

Education

Essie Mae Kiser Foxx appeal denied, school considering options

News

Iredell County votes to move Confederate memorial to cemetery

Nation/World

Lara Trump may have eyes on running for a Senate seat

Local

Rowan among counties in Biden’s disaster declaration from November floods

Local

PETA plans protest at Salisbury Police Department on Friday

Education

Essie Mae Kiser Foxx appeal denied, charter revoked

Coronavirus

29 new positives, no new COVID-19 deaths reported

Crime

Blotter: Woman charged with drug crimes

News

Nesting no more: Eagles appear to have moved on from Duke’s Buck Station

Business

The Smoke Pit leaving downtown Salisbury for standalone building on Faith Road

Education

Shoutouts

High School

High school football: Hornets’ Gaither set the tone against West

Local

Salisbury to show off new fire station

Education

Livingstone College to host virtual Big Read events this month