With the Sprint Cup championship remarkably close entering Sunday’s Ford 400, the season’s final race, the title could be largely in the hands of the crew chiefs, whose decisions – particularly under late-race pressures – could be pivotal.
Two tires? Four tires? Fuel only? Stretch the fuel load?
Unless one of the three contenders – Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick – has very good fortune early in the race and the other two collapse, it is likely that the crew chiefs will have to make critical moves over the final 100 laps.
Mike Ford (Hamlin), Chad Knaus (Johnson) and Gil Martin (Harvick) are the men on the spot – actually, on the pit wagons – Sunday.
Of the three, Knaus is the only pit boss with a Sprint Cup championship, and he has four. That automatically gives him a leg up Sunday, and he’s generally considered the automaton of the three.
Former champion crew chief Ray Evernham calls Knaus “a gunslinger, a guy who’ll call an audible despite what the head coach tells him to do.”
The downside of this week for Knaus, other than the fact that his driver is 15 points down going into the race, is an odd one – Johnson hasn’t really had to race hard at Homestead over his four championship seasons because he rolled into the season finale in a dominant spot.
“I think the biggest concern that I’ve got currently is that we haven’t gone to Homestead to truly race yet,” Knaus said. “We’ve gone down there with a bit of a protective mindset, so I think that puts us a little bit behind compared to the other guys. Denny, he ran top 5 most of the race last year. They had a good pit stop at the end, got some good track position, were able to win the race, and that was a good job by them.
“We ran 15th to fifth the majority of the day but never really had to get ourselves in a position where we had to push the car a whole lot. So we haven’t had to be the aggressor there, so I think that puts us a little bit behind the eight-ball. But, then again, when we go to tracks for the first time and try to get aggressive with it, we usually do pretty well. So I think that it could be a good thing, also.”
Knaus said Sunday is about the race, not about all the give-and-take that has appeared in the days and weeks leading to it.
“I guess the more you’re in this sport, the more you learn to become numb to what’s written and what’s published and what’s put out there,” Knaus said. “And Jimmie, along with the majority of the guys on the team – we honestly just don’t, we don’t read what’s written.
“We don’t look at the TV shows. We don’t take part in a lot of that stuff just for the simple fact that it’s just grief and a lot of propaganda. There’s a lot of people that enjoy the drama, but we don’t really get into it a whole lot. We don’t get into the ‘he said, she said’ stuff. We just let our actions speak for what we can do on the racetrack, and that’s the way we leave it.”
Ford and Hamlin have worked together over a long season to reach the top of their sport despite the fact that they aren’t close friends. Ford is married with children; Hamlin is single. They operate in different orbits and seldom hang out together. And they have had in-race differences, most notably last week at Phoenix when Hamlin complained that he wound up at a disadvantage because of the fuel situation.
The Hamlin-Ford interchange perhaps will be the most closely watched Sunday.
“Denny coming in was a little more aggressive than what I was used to working with,” Ford said. “I tamed him down, but he picked me up a little bit, also. So I think we both fed off of each other, and we’re better today because of it, and I think we’ve got a good balance at times. He’s not afraid to question me, and I’m not afraid to question him because we know at the end of the day we’re looking to accomplish the same thing.
“There goes through a period of time where when Denny first came on, he had a lot of respect for what I said, and then he went through a period where he was learning for himself, and through his adolescent years as a driver, he tested the waters and questioned a lot of things. It got tough for a couple of years.
“But I think we’ve gotten over that and back to working together a little bit better, and I think – you see a lot of relationships fail after two or three years, and we were at that point where I didn’t understand him sometimes and he didn’t understand me sometimes, but the more you communicate you’re able to move through those times, and that’s when things really get good.”
Ford said the two established the balance of their relationship early.
“Right up from the beginning, I told him, I said, ‘We’re not going to be best of friends; this isn’t what this is about. But professionally I’m going to support you, you support me, and we need to know that profession comes first in this sport.’
“We got that right up front in the first year and understood that, and that relationship has worked out well.”
Hamlin described it this week as “a business relationship.”
Martin is perhaps the most traditional NASCAR crew chief of the three, and his personality seems to fit well with Harvick’s. After a stormy 2009 season at Richard Childress Racing, Martin said he’s happy to be in a position to be in reach of the big prize.
“We didn’t know what we would be doing for a living last year at this time,” he said. “So, being in the position that we’re in right now and to lead the points most of the year, and if you go back to traditional points we’ve got over 300-something-point lead, which goes to show what a caliber of a season that we’ve had.”
Harvick, who is 46 points behind, is considered the underdog Sunday, but that’s OK with Martin, too.
“It doesn’t bother me at all that – it bothers me that we’re down 46 points, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But if they’re not talking about us constantly, if we win the championship, everybody will have a lot to talk about.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.