Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playing the armchair crew chief – looking back at decisions made in the heat of battle

The pressure on a crew chief is immense. The need to win and succeed hangs over
you at every moment of the day. Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
"What was he thinking?" You know sitting at home you have shouted that at the television as your driver’s crew chief made a call you disagreed with.  I am calling this "armchair crew chiefing". From the comfort of your Barcalounger, you are invisible as you shout "NO! That should have been a 2-tire call, you idiot!" And I am sure those are some of the mild things that you say to your televisions each weekend. 

As we see each week, crew chiefs are under immense pressure to toe the lines that NASCAR puts forth. Picture a mime trying to escape that invisible box. Well, crew chiefs have to stay in that invisible box each week without breaking its limits.

The latest example of questionably pushing the limits came out of Talladega. You’ve heard by now that Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, instructed him to damage his car in the event of a win because he was worried about being outside of that box. The debates are now raging. Was this an attempt to cheat by Knaus? Was he just worried about race damage and failing post-race inspection? Well, we are again playing the arm chair crew chief trying to know what was in Knaus’ head.

Knaus spoke to Jeff Gluck of sbnation.com and his comment was simply, "It's a tight tolerance that we're held in. It doesn't take much to be a few thousandths (of an inch) off and have NASCAR raise an eyebrow. Just being proactive, I just told Jimmie, 'Look, man – we've just got to make sure there's a tire mark or some type of visible damage.' Just because cars do move when you race them like that."

Now, my initial reaction was – oh no he didn’t!  That is cheating, or intent to cheat, as I called it. Now as I sit here and think, I honestly do not know what I would do in the situation of a crew chief, worrying about the confines of a box all the time, with very slim margins.

Remember when Clint Bowyer failed post-race inspection at Loudon in 2010, by 60-thousandths of an inch, which is less than 1/16 of an inch? I don’t know about you, but I do not regularly use the 16th of an inch measurement in my everyday life.

Pierre Kuttel (car chief) along with Bob Osborne and Carl Edwards.
Credit: Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR
The pressure a crew chief is under from his driver, team owner, manufacturer and knowing that the entire fate of the race lies in the calls he makes has to be incredible. I honestly hope there are weekly therapy and yoga sessions to get out the stress of it all. I really want to know how Knaus, Bob Osborne, Steve Letarte and all these guys handle it.

So while I do not personally agree with the call Knaus made in the heat of battle, I am going to cut him a bit of slack due to the tremendous pressure he is under. The invisible box has him trapped. Furthermore, the team is struggling this year, creating a sense of urgency to do whatever it takes to win. Johnson is the reigning five-time Sprint Cup champion and his chances for a repeat are now dismal. That leads me to just two conclusions: 1. There is internal strife within the No. 48 team due to their struggles this season, or the more likely 2. Finally the competition has caught up to that of Johnson and HMS, and the playing field has leveled off. Whatever the case, you have to believe that Johnson will not be off his game for long. The team will regroup for 2012.

As for the armchair crew chiefs out there, remember it is not you making the calls with your job on the line each week. Although a two-tire stop might get you some track position, four is usually the best call for handling, and that man on the pit box is there for a reason – he earned that box and the respect of his team.




NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless.Amanda also expanded her area of coverage to include exclusive interviews, brought straight to the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews click here. Feel free to follow and contact Amanda via Twitter.

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