Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Most Important Relationship In Racing

When it comes to being successful in NASCAR and competing for the Sprint Cup title, you need to be better than the rest. Your average finish needs to be better, your consistency needs to be better and overall your team needs to be better. One of the most crucial parts of that winning combination needs to be the relationship between the man behind the wheel and the guy calling the shots atop the pit box.

While the race can be won on or lost on pit road, the real difference maker seems to be the communication between the driver and crew chief. When things are good they are good, but how that combination reacts when things are not going well is the difference between leading the standings and fighting for also-ran.

Over the last three years Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have set the bar – and man is it high. One of the most calculated and hard-working men in the sport, Knaus has changed the game in NASCAR’s top-division and the working relationship he has with his driver Jimmie Johnson has rarely waivered.

“Over the years there definitely have been ups and downs,” Johnson argued. “In 2005 was the toughest period in time for us. Chasing Tony (Stewart) for the championship I came up short and was frustrated and we had a talk with Mr. Hendrick and went through some things. There are ups and downs and that's what I feel makes our relationship stronger. It's not always perfect and great. He speaks his mind and I speak mine. We fight and do all the things that go with it. But we don't cross certain lines and there is a great deal of respect that we have for one another And I know at the end of the day, he's doing everything he can and he knows I'm doing everything I can and some days you get beat. Some days you don't have it. We've worked through it enough over the years to have a good understanding of each other and have found a way to work together."

Despite miscalculations by Knaus on two occasions this year – when his gamble on fuel came up short in both Michigan events – Johnson and the rest of the team refused to give in. Neither pointed the blame and each looked at the situation as something that comes with the job. It’s this type of interaction that has led to three consecutive championships.

Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon knows what is like to work with the best of the best. The veteran driver made his mark in the sport with the man Knaus learned the ropes from, Ray Evernham. Together until 1999, the combination was the best in the business – the Jimmie and Chad of their time, if you will. Since Evernham departed the No. 24 pit box, Gordon has had only three crew chiefs; Brian Whitesell (who finished out the rest of the 1999 season and led the team to two wins), Robbie Loomis and current pit boss Steve Letarte.

Since taking over atop the pit box in September of 2005, the Gordon-Letarte combination has led to ten victories; their first coming just five races after Letarte took command of the team. When they began to struggle in 2008, producing no victories for the first time in Gordon’s career since his rookie season, Letarte caught the brunt of the criticism. Through it all, Gordon stuck by his crew chief and refused to let Letarte be the scapegoat.

“I think sometimes those relationships can happen immediately,” Gordon pointed out. “Sometimes they take years. You have to understand that Steve has been on our team a long time. The reason why I believe he is my crew chief right now is because he and I clicked when he was car chief. Even when he was doing tires for us years and years ago. I liked his attitude. I liked his energy level. I liked his personality. I felt like he and I meshed very well. When he became the car chief, I realized how smart he was and how capable he was far beyond what a car chief but even more so. He has only impressed me even more as a crew chief.”

This year the combination has once again found the magic and have proved to be a threat. Scoring a win at Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 24 team led the series standings twice for a total of nine weeks. Currently sitting fifth in the Chase, this team appears as strong as ever and shows no signs of giving in to teammates Jimmie and Chad.

Much like Gordon and Letarte, Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne have been together for quite some time. Entering their fifth year together (the pair was briefly separated in 2006, but reunited in 2007), the combination has produced sixteen wins – including an amazing nine last year. However, this season has not gone according to plan. Although they made the Chase, the team is still winless with only six races left in the year. Edwards has been left scratching his head, but one thing is sure, he does not question Osborne’s ability as a crew chief.

“What’s going on right now, for instance Bob and I, we won all these races last year, we did great and everything was wonderful. It seemed like we could win every week. He’s the same guy. I’m the same driver,” Edwards explained. “I feel like we’re even better than we were, our capabilities. I don’t think changing personnel at this level is what we need to do, and I don’t think Jack (Roush) feels that way. We just have to figure out mechanically what is different about our race car and the cars that are beating us, and that’s where it comes in. That’s where the problem-solving needs to be done. I don’t know about other teams, but I know for the 99 team, Bob Osborne is my crew chief. I would give up almost anything before I’d give up Bob Osborne.”

One driver that does not have that luxury is Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch. A contender in this year's Chase, Busch is now racing with a lame-duck crew chief in the final ten races. Pat Tryson announced in Richmond, just prior to the beginning of the Chase, that he would be leaving the team at the end of the year. After learning Tryson would be heading to Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske barred him from the shop except to take part in post-race debriefs on Tuesdays. Upset with his crew chief’s decision, Busch has voiced his displeasure in the media and over the radio during a number of races.

“Since Pat made the decision to leave our program, I’ve been a bit more sarcastic with him and a bit shorter with him just to kind of rub it in that he is leaving and this was a good thing that we had going on,” Busch said Thursday at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “Sometimes sarcasm over the radio can be spun 180 degrees…that it’s negative…and that it’s not the proper thing to be saying. But other than that, we’re business as usual. We’re jousting with each other, joking around here and there. It’s a fun situation right now because we feel like this is our best opportunity to win this championship and we better take advantage of this now because in six weeks we won’t be working together.”

“It hasn’t been all that bad,” Tryson said of his situation. Despite his restrictions at the shop, Tryson went on to explain he has been able to communicate with team members through email and phone calls and is still hungry to win this year.

“Nothing has changed over the last four (races) that wasn’t happening before," Tryson went on to say. "He just wants to win. There are times when he has made a few more sarcastic remarks, but I know what he is doing and it is all good.”

As Jeff Gordon put it Thursday in the media center, when one person is excited on the radio, the other needs to be the calming voice. With Busch and Tryson say everything is good they are continually at each other, with Busch admittedly using sarcasm over the radio. The level of production is hurt and the team’s performance will suffer. Compare the tattered relationship of Busch and Tryson to that of veteran Mark Martin and his crew chief Alan Gustafson.

In his first full season since 2006, Martin has turned some heads to say the least. With five wins – his most since 1998 – the 50-year-old veteran has a renewed spirit and hunger that has led him to become one of the top contenders for this year’s title. What has fueled Martin’s strong performance this year? Is it his twenty-seven years of experience? When you ask the Batesville, Arkansas-native his answer is simple – crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Now in his tenth year with Hendrick Motorsports, Gustafson has worked on the No. 5 car since 2000. His tenacity and diligent work ethic allowed him to move to the crew chief position in 2005. Calling the shots for drivers such as Terry Labonte and Kyle Busch, Gustafson has hit his stride with Martin this year and the combination’s success has shown on the track.

“What Alan and I have going on is really special and the communication and mutual respect and the way it is working,” Martin said Thursday at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “A thing I think that everybody should take note of is that one of the things I’m most proud of about Alan is I bet you he probably might be a little bit intimidated by me but it never shows and that’s big. That’s helped me as much as anything he could do is to not let me intimidate him and prevent him from doing his very best job for me. Not that I try to, I have been around a long time and a lot of times have gotten into situations where the crew chief gave in to what I thought or what I said too quick and I’m certainly not always right. We’re getting it right together and that was my point. We are able to get it right so much we hope to keep doing it.”

Over the years Martin has worked with a number of crew chiefs, yet has never meshed with one quite as well as he has with Gustafson this year. Learning from his past mistakes, Martin understands how important his relationship with the man atop the pit box is to having success on the race track.

“I know over a period of time I have beat down some crew chiefs in the past and I realized that and when you get to that point you can’t fix it. That damage is done, so from that experience I’ve learned too. I’ve learned how to handle things and my frustration, I am still conscious that will hurt me and I know that no matter how much those guys, when you kick them and you kick them again, I don’t care, I’m telling you it affects them.”

Former Mark Martin crew chief Steve Hmiel explained the job of the crew chief has evolved so much of the last few years as a result of engineers behind the scenes, simulations at the shop and various other technologies. Hmiel, as well as Tryson, pointed out the crew chief used to have more hands on involvement, but now the role has turned to more of a motivating coach.

“The crew chief needs to get in the drivers head,” Hmiel explained. “The driver needs to have confidence in the crew chief and has to feel comfortable with the changes being made.”

The ability of the driver and crew chief to communicate well and have confidence in one another has become one of the most crucial parts of having a successful season. Those atop the standings understand that and the relationships they have built have led to those results. For any team that wants to contend for a title and make their mark on the sport, this relationship needs to be atop their priorities and once that happens, things should fall into place.

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