Published November 20, 2014
There has to be a simple solution for all the drivers who can't stretch their fuel to finish line. Follow the No. 14's lead.
Pit when Tony Stewart pits.
Take the same number of tires and make the adjustments his team makes.
It has to be that easy, right?
While Chase drivers like Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have felt pain at the pump, Stewart has perfected the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship's recipe for success, taking the checkered flag the first two playoff races at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
He's positioned in first and with a third championship in sight because crew chief Darian Grubb has called all the right moves.
While drivers and fans have criticized races decided on fuel mileage rather than horsepower, Grubb said Stewart's fast start has been about more than stretching his tank.
"A lot of other people made the exact same call and finished the races as well, they just didn't have the track position when the time counted," Grubb said. "I don't feel like we're that far and above better than everybody else, it's just worked out in our favor at the right time."
Grubb and Stewart have teamed to turn a so-so regular season into a sensational start to the Chase.
At New Hampshire, Grubb made the decision late in the race to pit laps after Clint Bowyer made his last stop. Grubb knew that Bowyer couldn't make it to the end and ordered Stewart to push Bowyer for the lead, but not race any harder than he had to. Their patience paid off when Bowyer ran out of gas and Stewart zipped to the lead with two laps left to win his second straight race. Few drivers can conserve fuel like Stewart, a two-time Cup champion.
There's been little time to celebrate.
For Stewart-Haas Racing, it's been business as usual at the shop as they get ready for this week's race at Dover International Speedway.
Stewart has mixed results on the concrete track. His only two wins came when he swept the races in 2000 and he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in 2009 in one more of the thrilling endings in the track's history. But he never finished better than 18th over a five-race stretch from 2005-2007; finished 21st and 29th in his last two appearances; and has a modest 12.5 average finish over 25 career starts on the Monster Mile.
If Stewart proved anything the last few races, he can toss history out the window.
After a winless season and a 28th-place finish at Bristol only five races ago, Grubb and Stewart finally found their groove. They ended the "regular season" in third at Atlanta and seventh at Richmond. Still, Stewart had openly discounted his chances at winning a championship.
"We were getting better, but we weren't expecting to break through and win two in a row," Grubb said.
For whatever reason, Grubb said there are no missing links in the No. 14 Chevrolet. The total package is clicking — and they don't expect it to go away.
"I do feel like half the battle is just the momentum and the mentality of the guys and keeping everybody picked up," Grubb said.
It's an interesting dynamic between Grubb and Stewart.
Stewart owns his team and is Grubb's boss. But on race weekends, the roles are reversed and Stewart is expected to listen to Grubb. While that sort of relationship is tested during the lean times, the successes make it worthwhile.
"When he get to the race track, Tony flips the switch and he becomes the driver," he said. "He pretty much acts like he's my employee when we get to the track. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday it's a little tougher when the times are tough."
Grubb made the leap from Hendrick Motorsports when Stewart defected from Joe Gibbs Racing. At Hendrick, he was crew chief for Casey Mears in 2007 and ran Jimmie Johnson's team during crew chief Chad Knaus' four-race suspension in 2006. Johnson won two of the four races while Grubb ran his team.
Grubb didn't think he wanted to run his own team again until Stewart swayed him with an offer too good to refuse.
He's had no regrets, especially when his team is on top.
"The week-to-week grind is probably the part I don't enjoy. It's a never-ending job," he said. "But the part I do enjoy is actually being the leader for all these great employees at Stewart-Haas Racing."
Stewart's prickly personality can make him difficult to deal with for anyone connected to the sport. Grubb said the "no BS" personality can actually make it easier to work with him because employees always know where they stand.
Stewart ignited some controversy at New Hampshire with cryptic comments about how he got rid of some "dead weight" earlier in the week.
While fans and media have guessed what Stewart was talking about, Grubb said it was just another reason to have some fun around the shop.
"There's a lot of guys downstairs now that we're nicknaming 'dead weight' just for the fun of it," he said. "It's like, why are you still here? I thought you were the dead weight? It's been a fun game to play."