Mark Story

The Kentuckian who is coming home as a Daytona 500-winning crew chief

Chris Gabehart ended his first race as crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota in victory lane — in the Daytona 500.

The Louisville native says the magnitude of winning NASCAR’s “Super Bowl” did not fully hit him, however, until the post-race news conference.

A reporter asked Hamlin’s car owner, the former NFL coaching icon Joe Gibbs, what it meant to see one of his team’s cars win the Daytona 500 only weeks after Gibbs’ son, J.D., died at age 49 from the effects of a neurological disease.

“(Gibbs) said that night was the single biggest moment in his professional sports career,” Gabehart said last week. “Well, this is Joe Gibbs. He is a Hall of Famer in two sports. That was a really big statement for me. That was something that has stuck with me in my head and will for a really long time.”

Chris Gabehart with Denny Hamlin.jpg
In his first year as crew chief for driver Denny Hamlin, left, Louisville product Kevin Gabehart has presided over race wins for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota at Daytona International Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Hamlin had entered this season on a 47-race winless stretch. Nigel Kinrade Nigel Kinrade Photography

This weekend, when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Kentucky Speedway for the ninth running of the Quaker State 400 Presented by Wal-Mart, it will mark another special moment for Gabehart.

It will be Gabehart’s first visit to his home state as a Daytona 500-winning crew chief.

Help from Kyle Busch

Racing is in Gabehart’s blood from both sides of his family. His maternal grandfather, Al Straub, raced in the old NASCAR Grand American Series. He also owned a supply store for race-car parts.

Kevin Gabehart, Chris’ father, competed in a NASCAR-sanctioned Sportsman Division at the Louisville Motor Speedway.

Growing up in Louisville, Chris Gabehart, now 38, envisioned a driving career of his own. He started racing go-karts as a 10-year-old. As he matured, he worked his way up through midget cars to late-model cars.

“I drove for well over 20 years,” Gabehart says. “I finally had to figure out how to make a permanent living in the sport.”

Gabehart had given himself career options by attending Purdue University and earning a mechanical engineering degree.

As a late-model racer, Gabehart had competed against a team owned by NASCAR star Kyle Busch. Tom Busch, the father of Kyle, ran the team for his son.

“Tom Busch had kind of taken an interest in me,” Gabehart says. “They were looking for somebody to come in and kind of grow their late-model program. I figured if I was ever going to give the NASCAR world a shot, there was probably no better way to do it than with Kyle Busch and Kyle Busch Motorsports.”

In 2011, Gabehart became an engineer for KBM’s truck team. The following year, he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Gabehart worked his way up the ladder at JGR, eventually winning nine races as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series, seven with Erik Jones, one each with Hamlin and Ryan Preece.

“Chris is just a very technical guy, very detail-oriented,” Jones says. “That’s what makes him good.”

With Hamlin mired in a 47-race winless streak by the end of 2018, JGR installed Gabehart as his new crew chief for 2019 — starting with the Daytona 500.

A Kentucky sweep

Gabehart was not the only Kentuckian to win a race at Daytona International Speedway as a crew chief in the opening weekend of NASCAR’s 2019 season.

When Michael Annett won the Xfinity Series NASCAR Racing Experience 300 on Feb. 16 for car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports, Travis Mack was the victorious crew chief.

Mack is a Male High School class of 2001 graduate.

Travis Mack.jpg
Male High School graduate Travis Mack was the winning crew chief for Michael Annett in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. The next day, St. Xavier alumnus Chris Gabehart was the winning crew chief in the Daytona 500. Photo courtesy of NASCAR

The following day, Gabehart, St. Xavier High School class of 1999, was the winning crew chief in Daytona’s biggest race.

The two had known each other as little boys hanging around Louisville Motor Speedway while their fathers raced. Mack says his family always bought car parts from the Gabehart family’s store.

“(Gabehart) texted me after the race, congratulations,” Mack said. “I got to do the same thing to him on Sunday after the 500. It was really cool to see him win after I got the win.”

Says Gabehart: “Two guys from Louisville winning at Daytona on back-to-back days, that was really neat.”

Coming home

Since Hamlin’s victory at Daytona, the No. 11 team has also won at Texas and will come to Kentucky Speedway standing sixth in the Cup Series points.

Gabehart still regards Kentucky Speedway as his home track — with good reason. His father lives in Leitchfield in Grayson County; his mother in Louisville.

His maternal grandparents, longtime residents of Shepherdsville in Bullitt County, have recently moved to North Carolina to be closer to Gabehart.

“But they came back up to Kentucky to see people and to be here for the race,” Gabehart said.

This weekend, not only is Chris Gabehart coming home as a Cup Series crew chief, he is returning to Kentucky as the reigning Daytona 500-winning crew chief.

Gabehart says he heard “there was a decent stir“ in Louisville among those who knew him after Hamlin’s Daytona 500 victory.

“But I haven’t been home since (winning the Daytona 500),” he says. “I’m looking forward to coming back.”

NASCAR races at Kentucky Speedway

Truck Series: Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (Thursday, late)

Xfinity Series: Alsco 300, 7:30 p.m. Friday (NBC Sports)

Cup Series: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (NBC Sports)

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.