Thursday, November 19, 2015

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Championship-Contending Crew Chiefs


Forty-three teams will roll into Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend for the Ford EcoBoost 400. Of them, four teams will vie for the coveted Sprint Cup trophy. Only one will emerge victorious. All eyes will be on the driver of the winning car. Few realize that NASCAR is, in fact, a team sport. The team captain is the crew chief, and he'll have almost as much responsibility for the win as the driver will.

Throughout this season, this column has provided you with individual race details as told from the perspective of the winning crew chief. This weekend, four of the crew chiefs from whom you've previously heard have the opportunity to become champions.

Those four crew chiefs sat down this week to discuss the weekend ahead.

Perhaps no other team has had to overcome as much adversity as the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota team led by crew chief Adam Stevens. With so much success during the summer months, it's easy to forget that Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season because of injuries he sustained in an accident during the Daytona 500 weekend in February.

"Well, it's been a wild year, starting with Kyle's accident. That's not something that any of us had planned or prepared for, and it was such a devastating crash that none of us knew if he was going to recover this year at all, and certainly what state he would come back in.
            
"But due to his perseverance and determination, he was able to get back in a time schedule that was even not predicted by his doctors, you know, and certainly not predicted by any of us on the race team, and get himself in a spot where he at least had the potential to score enough points to get Chase eligible.
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

"You know, we started off with high hopes putting the team together in the off-season and wanting to be in this position, and then before we even left Daytona, that was all taken away from us. So to battle back from that and all the wins that we've had along the way and good runs in competitive cars is remarkable at this stage," Stevens explained.
 
Stevens also discussed his primary concerns for championship weekend.

"The weather is always a constant worry. You know, if you don't know if you're going to get practice on Saturday, it'll really affect how long you stay in race trim or how quickly you swap to qualifying trim on Friday. You know, that could have major bearings on the weekend, so you're always keeping an eye on the weather, which is tough to do in southern Florida.
            
"And as far as the general history of the race and concerns I might have, you know, if you look at the caution history, there were a ton of cautions last year, and guys really went through their tires quickly. And now that we are -- there's a hard limit basically on the tires, you could put yourself in a spot where you run out of tires, and it would be very easy to do. But you never know when they're going to have a long green flag run, and if you're coming off a ten-lap run and you elected not to put tires and then it goes 60 or 70 laps green, you're going to be in bad shape.
            
"You know, tire usage on a track that has a lot of tire falloff is always a concern, and in looking at the caution history, I don't think that it's as cut-and-dry. You go to a lot of places, you're going to have a lot of cautions, but we've seen Homestead with very few cautions or very many cautions, so it's really hard to say how that's going to shake out.
            
"But as a crew chief, those are two things that you don't want to be on the short side of. You don't ever want to run out of tires and you don't ever want to be caught by surprise by a late race caution," Stevens said. 

The pairing of Martin Truex Jr. with crew chief, Cole Pearn, has been wildly successful this year. In their first year together, the pair has logged one win and a chance to walk away with the series' top prize.

"Yeah, it's been a pretty successful year, obviously, to this point, and we're definitely pleased with the progress we've made. But again, you know, we're down with one race to go, to race against three other guys, and we're just ready to make the most of it and hopefully come out with a championship," Pearn said.

Pearn also discussed the potential for weather-related delays in south Florida.

"Between myself and three other engineers, we really monitor different forecasts, different radars to try and stay up on it. I think everybody got thrown for a little bit of a loop this past weekend in Phoenix, but obviously south Florida weather is very humid and easy to have pop-up showers at any point. I think when we tested there a couple months ago, we pretty much, I think over a whole day, only got about four hours of running in just because of the sporadic weather conditions during the day. I think we definitely have to be prepared for that, but again, everyone is in the same boat, so I think you just prepare the best you can and deal with whatever comes," Pearn said.

Canadian-born Pearn also had another weather issue en route to Florida: the snow in Denver where Furniture Row Racing is based.  

Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
"Yeah, we had planned to really leave Monday night, but just with the workload, I don't think the truck got loaded until about 2:00 on Tuesday and we kind of had a little bit of time because we had I-70 and I-25 both shut down out of Denver. It definitely made it a little tighter, tighter timeline for the truck drivers getting out, and they've been plugging away, though. They're making good progress now. I think they're running about 40 miles an hour on ice for pretty much most of Kansas, but I think they're starting to make good headway now," Pearn said.

Pearn also talked about the adversities with which Truex Jr. has dealt this year.

"Well, I think that's sometimes what happens when things kind of turn against you in life and you kind of hit the bottom a little bit. You definitely look around and you find the positives, and at the end of the day you still have to get up every day. I think that perspective of having to get up every day and make the most of it has definitely been the change you've seen in him. Or even if we do have a bad day or whatever, he keeps the big picture in mind and keeps everybody positive most of the time, and that's been a huge pleasure to have around and really been a positive thing for our team.
           
"I think on the relationship between me and him, it's just easy. We're very focused people but we're very relaxed in the same sense, and having to work together with somebody like that just makes it really simple," Pearn explained.

One crew chief anxious to see the green flag wave is the reigning Cup champion chief, Rodney Childers.
 
"It's definitely exciting for sure. You know, I feel like we've had a really good season. We've had fast cars all year, and just everybody on the team is doing an excellent job at the shop and all the guys at the chassis shop and the engine shop at Hendrick, also. You know, it's just been a fun season, and we look forward to the opportunity of going down there and at least having a shot at it and being able to do something special. You know, any time you can make that Final Four with this new format, it's pretty special," Childers said.

Not everything about Homestead, despite their race win there last year, excites Childers.

"You know, you always fight the same things at Homestead. Everybody is really loose off the corner, under the throttle, and we just never could get anything to work the way that we wanted it to. Yeah, we got it better as the weekend went on, but it definitely wasn't perfect. We went back to test down there not long ago and didn't get much accomplished at all. It rained half the time we were there and it ended up raining out almost the whole test.
            
"We just need to do some things better than what we did last year and try to get a little bit more rear grip in the car on the exit of the corner.

"Well, you're not really figuring anything out for this weekend because you can't predict the future and you don't know how many cautions there's going to be this weekend.
            
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
"But last year there was definitely a lot more than what we had had in previous years. You know, if you lay out the last five seasons in the race down there, there's really no comparison on how many we had last year. But you've got to be smart with your tires and make sure that you don't run out before you want to at the end and that kind of thing, but everybody knows that the pace falls off a lot down there and tires are important.
            
"If you think you want to save a set and everybody else pits and then 20 laps later you're a lap down, it puts you in just as bad of a spot as if you're running out of tires at the end. You've got to be smart about it and just do the best job you can and hope that it works out for yourself," Childers explained.

As the current champions, Harvick and Childers are excited about the possibility of winning consecutive championships.

"When I sat at his [Harvick's] house and we met and talked about doing this, that's what we both said is we wanted to be in a position where we could race for a championship, and not only for one year but do it for multiple years and keep things going and that kind of thing.
            
"I think just having that attitude from the beginning has been one of the best things for our race team. It's not just me and him that want it, it's the entire team, and it's I think what separates our team from a lot of others. I mean, you've got to have 100 percent of the people wanting it as much as you do, and we've been very fortunate to have that so far.
            
"You know, it's a lot of fun going to the racetrack these days, and hopefully we can keep it going," Childers said.

Perhaps no other story has captured the collective hearts of NASCAR fans this season than the pending retirement of the man who changed the face of the sport in the modern era. 

Jeff Gordon will take his final turn behind the wheel of the famed No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet this weekend in his bid for a fifth Cup championship. Crew chief Alan Gustafson will be there to call the shots for him for 367 laps.

"You want to win a championship; you want to be a champion. That's what you compete so hard for in this sport. The fact that it's Jeff's last year, somebody who has been a huge part of the sport with a tremendous amount of success and been such a great advocate for the sport, but a huge part of our company and our success of our company and a huge supporter of us for so long. I mean, that's extra added incentive obviously to send him out on top as we believe he deserves, and we're working hard to do that. It's a really huge moment for us, and we're excited about it," Gustafson said.

With the media attention Gordon will receive this weekend, how will Gustafson handle his responsibilities while still allowing his driver the freedom to do interviews and and photo opportunities?

"Yeah, he does have a lot on his plate. I think being able to clinch in Martinsville has helped that out because he can get some of that stuff out of the way, and we wanted to make sure when on-track activity was going on or anything around that, he had as limited obligations as possible.         
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs

"He's very much on board with that. It's not something that I had to tell him. It's something that he was very much on board with and that he wanted to do, also, and when it comes down to the on-track that there's no interruption there. He manages his stuff really well. Of everybody I've been around in my life, he's the best at it, and he knows how to manage it and not let it influence his racing, and this is probably going to be his toughest task when it comes to that. But you know, we typically have our weekly time with Jeff, which we've had this week, even though he wasn't able to be here on Tuesday, which he typically is. He was here today [Wednesday], and we were able to speak to him on the phone Tuesday at length. He's very attentive and very much involved with what we need him to do, and his staff take care of that, so it's worked out well," Gustafson explained. 

Though Gordon is in pursuit of his fifth Cup trophy, a win would be Gustafson's first.

"It is a big thing for me.  It's a career goal and something that I want to do and have aspirations to do and think it would be a huge thing for me in my career to win a championship. It's been my goal my whole career. On another side note, not really a side note, but I've been in this building, the 5/24 shop for 11 years since its inception, and that's been the goal for me in this building, also, to win a championship out of this building, and we've come close but haven't been able to do that. So we're very aware of that, and it's a huge thing for us, and it's why we work so hard and why we dedicate so much time and why we do everything that we do is to win a championship and be champions. That's the end result, that's the end goal. That's what we're trying to do, what we've tried to do for a long time. If we could do that, that would be huge. It would be a big thing for myself in this building, and I think it would set a nice culture or legacy standard, whatever you want to call it, to propel us into the future with Chase.
            
"So yeah, there's a lot of things, a lot of huge, big things on the line for us," he said.
            
"As far as enjoying it and opportunities, absolutely, you're right. It's never guaranteed. You never know if you'll get a chance to be back in this position again.  You never know what the future holds, and this is a special opportunity.
            
"I just enjoy competing and being involved in it. That's really what's fun for me, what I'm passionate about. So just going through the act of it is very enjoyable for me, and the preparation of the car and the interaction with the team and all the things that go along with a situation like this where you have a heightened sensitivity and this heightened awareness. I really enjoy that, so that's kind of the fun for me.
            
"You have to really appreciate it, and you want to be aware of your surroundings and kind of take it in, but at the same time you want to stay focused on the goal. It's been fun to do. It's been an enjoyable week, and looking forward to getting to Homestead and seeing what happens and seeing how it transpires and working through it good or bad and trying to put ourselves in the best position possible. That fight is what I so much enjoy, and I'm looking forward to that," Gustafson said.

We're looking forward to it, too. Be sure to tune in Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC for coverage. 
---------------------------

   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    Her other interests include country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

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