Chase strategy changes everything
September 17, 2013, Ron LeMasters Jr., NASCAR.com
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The first six months of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is spent doing one thing: putting yourself in position to race for the silver Tiffany trophy over the final 10 races.
We're at that point right now. The second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is just days away at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The shift in mentality from chasing the Chase to actually competing in it should be a small one, but it isn't. It's pretty big.
No more tinkering, no more trying stuff, no more "I've got a few more races to get this worked out." It's on, and if you mess up in the first couple of races and get way down in the points, your Chase is over.
"It's going to come down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who has the least amount of bad luck," is how Kurt Busch describes it. Considering the all-out assault he laid on putting single-car Furniture Row Racing into the Chase, he knows a little bit about luck.
"It's going to come down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who has the least amount of bad luck,"
In 2004, when he won the inaugural Chase title, he had more than his share. After blowing an engine at Atlanta, he went to Homestead and narrowly averted disaster when the right front wheel exited the car at the entrance to pit road.
He went on to win the title by a scant eight points.
The Chase is different for a couple of reasons. First, you're racing 12 other cars (this season at least), not 42. Second, your strategy goes from winning races to getting bonus points to simply winning the day among those other Chase drivers.
Winning is a bonus, no doubt about it, but a good finish is the main goal. Well, that and hoping your Chase rivals have trouble of some kind.
"We can't make winning a race happen," Ryan Newman said. "We have to put the work in and the effort in. You can't just roll the Magic-8 ball and say we're going to win today. That's not the way it happens, and I really believe that some people think that."
It's all about not messing up and getting in too big a hole.
"On any given day at the race track, the win is defined differently based on what you have for a car and team to work with," said Brad Keselowski, who won the 2012 title in a tense battle with Jimmie Johnson that went to the final race at Homestead.
This year, Keselowski became just the second driver to miss out on a chance to defend his title (Tony Stewart in 2006).
"Sometimes the win is simple: You win the race. You take a fast car and you find a way to get up front and lead laps and win," he said. "Sometimes the win might be having a 15th- or 20th-place car and finishing in the top five. That might be the win. And I know that's really hard for some people to see ... but it's just as important as being able to take a winning car and win with it -- and it's just as impressive to me."
Four of the last six Chase battles have been won by drivers who visited Victory Lane at least twice in the final 10 races, so winning is important still, just not as much as it was coming in.
It's about consistency, really, and having your stuff wired tight. You can't afford a blown engine, a tire going down or a miscue on pit road. Slow (that's a relative term, by the way) and steady wins the Chase.
What the Chase is all about is pressure, and it is immense.
The team -- mechanics, crew chief, drive, owner -- has to be on the same page, thinking the same way and prepared when the music stops. If you're caught between chairs when the music dies, you're toast.
Nobody's been better at facing the music in the Chase than Johnson, who has won five of the nine run so far.
"We all have different strategies and what works for each team and driver," Johnson said. "The 'what-ifs' are always in the mind and they find their way in especially when you're just about to fall asleep and they find you when you just wake up.
"Over the years and through experience, I've found ways to deal with those thoughts. I'm at a standpoint of just thinking offense, and myself and this team, we're trained to go out and perform. Those thoughts are there and you need to learn how to deal with those emotions and understand how that pressure makes you respond and act.
"I have a lot of confidence in those areas."
When it hits the fan, it's likely as not to be something small rather than a big crash, or a blown engine, says Kevin Harvick.
"It may not even be a visible mistake; it may just be a mistake where you have a 15th-place day and that's just not going to be good enough," he said. "I don't know that it's going to be a visible mistake like an accident or something big."
On the other hand, you can stumble on a series of factors that puts everything in the right place at the right time, like Stewart did in 2011.
"You can have the best car, the best crew chief, the best team, the best pit stops, but if you don't have the best luck, it doesn't matter," Stewart said. "I think we have that combination of a good race team. For 26 weeks, we had not had one day of luck. We had bad luck every week.
"Finally it ran its course, and finally after 26 weeks of bad luck, we had 10 weeks of good luck."
A team that was winless in the first 26 races rebounded to win five of the 10 Chase races despite a lame-duck crew chief. Stewart had to win at Homestead to beat Carl Edwards: he did, and his third Sprint Cup Series title was in the bag.
That in a nutshell is the strategy for the Chase: Be in the right place at the right time, beat the other Chase drivers over 10 races and pray that bad luck and trouble don't find you without a seat when the music stops playing.