What happened when three short track Late Model guys made their debut as a team together in the biggest NASCAR race of the season?
They went out and won the Daytona 500, obviously.
For Denny Hamlin and spotter Chris Lambert, this was the second time they accomplished the fete, having done so in 2016. But Sunday saw the Cup Series crew chief debut of Chris Gabehart, the 2007 CRA Super Series champion driver, who guided Hamlin to his second Harley J. Early trophy, snapping a 47-race winless streak in the process.
For short track fans, the No. 11 is something akin to a dream team.
Hamlin is a Late Model Stock graduate, the 2003 Southern National Motorsports Park track champion, who was discovered and refined out of the Carolinas and Virginias by the late J.D. Gibbs.
Lambert began working on Late Models right out of high school in the mid-1990’s and soon connected with current Cup Series spotter Mike Herman Jr., when he was racing up and down the East Coast. When his brother couldn’t spot for Herman one night, Lambert took over and soon carved a niche for himself on top of the tower.
Shortly afterwards, Gabehart began his own career as a Super Late Model driver, winning five times in the CRA Super Series alongside the tour championship in 2017. When he never caught a break behind the wheel, he became a crew chief, and a brilliant one at that.
Now they’re immortalized in Victory Lane as Daytona 500 champions.
“There’s a lot of us in Cup now who have this background,” Gabehart said. “Daniel Hemric, his spotter Branden Lines and Ryan Preece. This was all of their first Daytona 500.
“This is the dream that we all had when we were kids, when we were working our tails off in the short track world, and I’m proud to be one of the few to have been able to win it for sure.”
Hamlin found great irony in three guys that made their names on half-miles becoming immortalized at a 2.5-mile track.
“That’s pretty crazy,” Hamlin said. “There are so many guys in NASCAR who have that short track DNA in them. But Gabehart, is a definition short track lifer and is still very passionate.
“It’s cool to have the superspeedway resumes that we have now, but anytime you can get three people who just love racing, even at the short track level, together, that’s always going to be a recipe for success.”
Lambert took about a half-decade off from racing in the early 2000s following a family tradgedy, but returned to NASCAR in 2006 with MB2 Racing and joined Hamlin’s team in 2012.
“We’ve talked about it before, but one of the reasons I first wanted to join Denny’s team in 2012 is that we’ve come up the same way,” Lambert said. “I really respect him and respected what they do at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny earned his way here on talent alone. And that’s not the case for a lot of people.
“I’ve known Gabehart since 2005, when he was still driving, and I told him last night, that ‘you won the Daytona 500, so now you need to win the Winchester 400’ and your resume will be complete.”
Gabehart replaces Mike Wheeler on top of the No. 11 pit box with the stated of goal of getting Hamlin his first championship. Hamlin now has two Daytona 500 victories and 32 Cup Series victories.
The case could be made that Hamlin is the most successful active driver without a championship, and the most accomplished since Mark Martin. Gabehart has been tasked to end that narrative.
And do it with some blue collar work ethic.
“The best thing about Denny is that his personality is so even-keeled,” Gabehart said. “You know what you’re going to get with him every week. You know what he needs. What I don’t have to worry about is any of that changing. He’s the winningest active driver without a championship and I hope we can remedy that this year.”
And Lambert expects them to have a lot of fun along the way.
“It’s a cool dynamic to have a Late Model Stock driver from Virginia, a Super Late Model driver from Kentucky and a redneck from Kannapolis, North Carolina to have come together and win the crown jewel of our sport,” he said.
“It’s gratifying and it’s special.”