With one race left in the 2010 NASCAR season, the Chase for the Championship is down to just three drivers. Denny Hamlin leads four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson by just 15 points, while regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick sits in third place just 46 points behind.
And while most of the headlines are centered around these three competitors, the championship could be determined by three other men instead.
With everything on the line, some of this weekend's race, as well as the season-long championship battle could come down to decisions made by the crew chiefs of the three main competitors.
Today, Gil Martin, Chad Knaus and Mike Ford all took the time to give their thoughts on their respective drivers, the 2010 season and the opportunity to race for the most coveted prize in the sport.
Gil Martin, crew chief for Harvick, took to the floor first, and almost immediately his confidence about the car that the team has prepared came to light.
"Basically we're bringing a brand new race car to Homestead. We've put everything into it that I think we've learned through the course of the season. The engine shop, ACR, has built us one of the best engines I think that they've produced all year long and got it in the car, so feel really good about the piece that we're taking," said Martin.
Martin was then asked about his decision to bring a new car for this pivotal race instead of one that's already been successful on the track this season.
He responded, "I'm plenty comfortable with it. We took our car we ran in Michigan and the car we ran at Charlotte all in the wind tunnel two weeks ago, and this car had the best numbers. That's one of the things we've done as a company much better this year is being able to produce a good product and do it week after week. I feel real comfortable with the car we're taking."
Going to Homestead once a year provides drivers and crew chiefs the challenge of making adjustments quickly based on the car as well as the track. Not having notes from earlier in the season provides for the need of quick decision making by the crew chief.
When asked about the preparation of getting the car ready for this once a year visit to Miami, Martin expressed some confidence in the improvements his team has made this season on the mile-and-a-half tracks.
"Well, we had a great run at Homestead last year, but that was also with the wing car. But I think the progression of our mile and a half program has changed a great deal this year through just how we've run at Michigan and some of the other places that we've run," he said.
Martin then added, "So what we'll do is we've gone back and we've done a lot of simulation through tracks that are as similar to Homestead as we can get, and we've got a couple of mile-and-a-half packages that we'll try to incorporate those into the weekend because I really think that the program that we had last year is not going to be good enough to do what we need to do this time."
Martin also mentioned the fact that most of his decisions will be based on how Harvick is running in comparison to both Hamlin and Johnson.
He said, "We obviously will have to have a running tally of where the points are throughout the whole race, and that's something that we're working on, because if we're running 12th, we need to know where they are, or if we're leading or whatever the scenario may come down to.
"We're going to have to base our whole race based on that solely. And we'll have to adjust accordingly because that's what it's going to come down to. It won't do us any good to run third if they're running ninth or something. So we're going to have to do whatever it takes to make the mathematics of the whole day work out. So yeah, we'll spend a lot of time looking at that throughout the course of the day."
And while the No. 29 team is the longest shot to win the championship of the three teams, Martin had high praise for the whole team. "I think if you go back and look, it's almost been one of the best seasons that RCR has ever had in its history. Obviously if we don't win the championship, it's not going to be where we want to be, but it's a championship run that we've had all year long."
And for his feelings on Harvick, Martin said, "He's done a great job, and I think he deserves a lot more credit probably than he is getting. As far as the driver, I wouldn't swap him for anybody right now."
Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, was the second crew chief to speak. The first thing that Knaus talked about was the team's optimism and excitement about going to Homestead.
"I think after last weekend, the guys have got a little bit of spring in their step, and closing that gap, albeit by half as much as we truly needed, we were able to close it up some so that gives us definitely a fighting chance going into the weekend, and honestly if we go down there and do everything that we need to do, we have the ability to win it. So a lot of optimism going into the race this weekend," said Knaus.
Not only does Knaus have a lot of optimism about the coming weekend, but he feels that he is going into the race with the best driver.
When asked to compare Johnson to the other two championship contenders, Knaus said, "I think Jimmie ultimately is a better race car driver than both of those two are."
He added, "I'm not saying that he always is going to beat them on the racetrack, but I think week in and week out Jimmie does a better job of racing than the other guys do as far as passing cars and whatnot."
And while Knaus and his team are just 15 points behind the championship lead, it is a position that is very unfamiliar to them at this point in the season. In their previous four championship runs, they have been the point leader going in to Homestead each year.
When asked about the difference in how to approach the race, Knaus replied, "It's different for sure, we're going into an event that we haven't had to really race at, so that's a little unique for us since in years we haven't had to get after it that hard there. From that respect it's a little different."
He also added, "But ultimately it's no different than what we do week in and week out, so it's not anything out of the ordinary. We have to go to Homestead and we have to put every foot forward to sit on the pole and win the race, and that's no different than what we do if we go to Atlanta or Pocono or Michigan or wherever it is. So we don't have any more pressure on us than to do what it is that we need to do, and that is compete as be as fast as we possibly can."
Knaus actually feels like there is very little pressure on his team, and that it is the No. 11 team that has all the pressure. He said, "The pressure therein lies on the guys on the 11 because they're in a protective situation where they have to be cognizant of what we're doing and aware of what the 29 car is doing. For us it's really pretty simple. We just have to go down there and go fast."
And unlike the approach that Gil Martin and the No. 29 team are taking, Knaus said he isn't going to be paying attention to what the other two championship contending teams are doing.
He said, "We don't care. That's the 11 car's job to be worried about us and the No. 29. As far as us, it's really irrelevant. We have to go down there and get the best finish that we can and let it play out as it may. We can't go into a protective zone and say, okay, we're just going to ride fifth and they're going to ride seventh. That's not how it's going to work. It's not going to be that simple for us. We're going to have to go out there and compete and not worry about them."
Finally, it was Mike Ford, crew chief for championship Denny Hamlin, to take the floor. The first topic of discussion for Ford was this weekend's race strategy and protecting their lead in the points.
"If you're in a position to where you can run in front of the 48 and the 29, then you'll do that. But you won't take chances if you are in that situation to be able to outrun those guys. You may not take the chances to win the race that you normally would," said Ford.
He also added, "It's a very difficult balance. You have to be smart in that situation and not take chances that you don't have to take. We don't feel like we have to go win the race."
Ford was then asked further about strategy, and if what the other two teams were doing, would have any impact on how things play out for his team. He answered, "Well, you're going to have to play that as you go."
Continuing on, he said "We've got to make sure that we don't do anything stupid. If we don't have to go win the race, then don't take chances to do that. Don't make mistakes that take yourself out of contention at the end of the day. I won't say that you can play defense in this situation because you're not sitting on a huge lead. So you just have to be open-ended and paying attention to what others are doing and don't let them get anything over on you."
Ford was asked what qualities he thinks his driver excels at more than either of his two main rivals. Ford knew the answer almost immediately.
"I think Denny's strong suit in the car this year has been that he stays calm. He stays calm and works through issues. I think that's what Denny has really come to do well this year. I don't know that he learned that from Jimmie, but I think he saw that as the right thing to do. It's very difficult to do when you're an emotional person," said Ford.
He also added, "So I think toe to toe if you are drawing a comparison between the 48 and the 11, it's almost in my opinion a mirror of the two, just we're on the up cycle of it right now."
And when comparing Hamlin to Harvick: "I think Denny stays calm in the car more than Kevin does. I think they're very aggressive. I think they find a way to sneak something out at the end of the day." he went on to add, " So strong suit for us I think Denny stays calmer. Strong suit for them is I think they'll take chances and make it work."
Ford was able to continue on with high praise for Hamlin. He said, "Denny is a competitor. He's very smart in the race car. He knows what he's looking for. He knows how to call races. He watches these races back, he studies them, he asks a lot of questions."
The final point that Ford made was stressing the importance of good communication between himself and his driver. "Your conversation during the races is—it's different each week. That sounds strange, but a lot of it depends on where we're at, how we're running, and I know just in knowing Denny, when he's got a shot and he's got a good car, he talks more than he does when he's having to work. When he's frustrated, he doesn't say much. That makes me prod him a little more," said Ford.
He went on by saying, "When he has a good race car, he delivers information without having to ask because I think in his mind he realizes, hey, I'm really close here. All I need is a little bit. So when he offers up information, the changes that I make are smaller. When I have to dig for information, I make larger adjustments. That's part of knowing your driver."
So, as we approach the season finale, and a championship is within reach for three teams, it is clear that each of these crew chiefs are aligned with the driver who they think has what it takes to win the championship, and each crew chief is as prepared as he possibly can be for what is the biggest race of their respective careers.
While all the focus will be on which driver can drive his way in to the history books, the championship fates for Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick may actually be out of their hands, and in the hands of three of the best crew chiefs currently in the sport.
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