In a Chase format that all but mandates the winner is the first to cross the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stevens could not have asked for a better ending to his first year as crew chief for Kyle Busch than to see his driver win not only the Ford EcoBoost 400, but also the series championship.
"I'd be lying if I said I had any idea what we've even accomplished this year. It's just been such a whirlwind year. You know, it was very compressed from the time that Coach and J.D. said, 'Hey, we need you to crew chief a Cup car,' maybe 16 or 18 months ago, and just so much work went into building the right team and getting the right guys together. A lot more work went into that than went into thinking about race cars," Stevens explained.
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Busch persevered and returned to his team sooner than anyone thought possible.
"We had such high hopes for the season and got off on a good start there early in Speedweeks, and then Kyle had his accident, and the wind was certainly taken out of our sails. I was just terrified that he was really, really in bad shape, but he saw his way back through that and got us on the right track, and thankfully we had a lot of help from Matt Crafton and David Ragan and Erik Jones and learned a lot in his absence, and were just ready for his return. He came back strong. So that's a testament to his hard work and dedication, and got us to where we're at today," Stevens said.
Stevens spent those eleven weeks trying to learn all he could about setting up the No. 18 Toyota according to how drivers like Crafton and Jones piloted the car. They were able to relay information to him in ways that Busch didn't.
In talking about the way he approached his position in Busch's absence, Stevens says, "We still have to advance, and we still have to make our program go forward, and we have to contribute to the success of JGR as a whole. The guys that chipped in, Matt and David and Erik, just did a tremendous job, and when you have somebody else in the seat, you get a different level of feedback, you get a different kind of feedback, and I think that helped us develop our setups and our notebooks in a way that maybe just Kyle driving wouldn't do. It has its pluses and its minuses. We didn't have the most top 10s or top fives to show for it, but we had a few, and we learned something every weekend we went to the track, based off their feedback and their experience, so that was huge for us to move forward and be ready."
Through a joint effort of Stevens' strategy and the feedback he received from the replacement drivers along with the sheer determination and talent in Busch, the team put together an impressive run of multiple wins once Busch was back in the driver's seat.
Knowing that NASCAR had implemented a medical waiver, making it possible for the team to be in Chase contention with at least one win and positioning inside the top 30 in points at the conclusion of the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond in September gave the team its marching orders.
Winning four out of five races during the summer months allowed the No. 18 team to fulfill the requirements set forth by NASCAR. They were able to qualify for each successive round of the Chase with great finishes throughout the nine weeks leading up to Homestead.
Stevens talked about how the team and his driver never gave up.
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"One thing I know for sure, Kyle can find a way. Good or bad, he can find a way. We had speed.
"So then the Chase started, and it's about accumulating points and keeping your average finish up, and that was my mindset and our mindset going in. We weren't going to pass an opportunity for a win, but we were going to make sure we had the finishes and scored the points.
"And then we had that issue with the flat tire at Loudon, and it was on again. You know, we had to make sure we had a good finish. We were in a win-at-all-costs situation. So you kind of piece your way through the championship like that, making sure you get yourself in this position, and then you get to release the beast at Homestead, and that's what we got to do," Stevens explained.
Stevens admitted that he didn't give much thought to any adversity that might come their way once the Chase began, especially considering how Busch had overcome earlier in the year.
"I go back to all my dealings with Kyle, back from our Nationwide days, or XFINITY days, up and through before the Chase this year. I haven't seen that out of him. Whatever situation you put him in, he delivers. You know, the more I ask out of him, the more he gives me, and I knew if I had a plan, and I gave him a good car, we could always make it work.
"I think the Michigan deal was pivotal for me, too. I probably had some more conversations with him maybe in my own way. He maybe doesn't even realize it.
"But it is important to approach each weekend as a clean slate. You know, it's my responsibility to look a little bit further down the line and it's his responsibility to focus on what's in front of him, and I think he did that perfectly," Stevens said.
Busch must have thought that Stevens did his job perfectly, too. In his initial post-race comments, Busch excitedly called Stevens his hero. The pair has certainly had a heroic year together. They've overcome what could have been career-ending difficulties to become Sprint Cup champions. Not bad for their first year together, huh?