'Aggressive' decision dooms Denny Hamlin's title chances

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — A piece of tape ended up being the difference between Denny Hamlin racing Kyle Busch straight-up for the 2019 Cup Series title and Hamlin hoping for a late-race caution to have a chance to catch back up to the leaders.

Hamlin ran second to Busch for much of the final stage of Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. To catch Busch, Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart made the decision for his crew to add a large piece of tape to the front of Hamlin’s car.

[Kyle Busch wins 2019 NASCAR Cup Series title]

In an ideal world, the tape would have helped the handling of Hamlin’s car and allowed him to chase Busch down for the first title of his career. The early evening of Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, was not the No. 11 team’s ideal world.

Hamlin’s engine started pushing water as his water temps skyrocketed and other gauges crashed. He had to come to pit road or his engine would have failed.

“Certainly we got a little aggressive there, and it cost us, but I mean, [Gabehart has] also been really aggressive and won us races, too,” Hamlin said.  It's just he's going for it. He saw an opportunity there to really add some speed to the car, and it just didn't work out.”

Hamlin brought his car to the pits with 46 laps left in the 267 lap race. He rejoined the race a lap down. And his car was really, really fast without the tape.

Hamlin raced his way back around Busch and onto the lead lap after the unexpected pit stop. But he needed a caution that never arrived to get a chance to get close to Busch. The final 101 laps of Sunday’s race went caution free. Hamlin never got that opportunity for a late-race restart. He finished 10th.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” Gabehart said. “We just tried to pull off a really difficult plan, didn’t get it done and unfortunately as good as car was at the end I don’t know if we needed it anyway but a race team is not going to be this good because they don’t live by the fire.”

“You have got to dance with the fire to beat these guys and that’s what this race team does. And the problem with dancing with it is every now and then you get burned.”

Gabehart was named Hamlin’s crew chief after Hamlin had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2018. He failed to win a race for the first time in his career and his 11th-place finish in the points standings was his worst full-season effort since 2007.

The partnership experienced immediate success when Hamlin won the 2019 Daytona 500 to clinch a playoff spot. He went on to win five more races in the next 35 and scored a career-best 24 top-10 finishes.

That success was, in part, because of Gabehart’s aggressive nature. Hamlin acknowledged that as soon as he got off his car and shook off the immediate sadness of failing to score the first tile of his career.

“He was going for it, and I don't fault him for that because I've gotten really fast cars because he goes for it every single week.”

And especially at the end of Sunday night’s race. Hamlin was running times that were as good or better than Busch and others at the front of the field. Could he have had something for Busch without that ill-fated pit stop? Hamlin was certainly going to be aggressive himself if he had the opportunity.

“I don’t know. It remains to be seen, right?” Hamlin said. “At this race track, you can’t use all the tricks until the end because it puts your car at risk but I was getting ready to give it all I had and empty the tank and if we crash, we crash.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports

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