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Caraviello: Even in retrospect, Ford has no regrets

February 02, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Even in retrospect, Hamlin's crew chief remains a man of his words

Say this about Mike Ford -- the guy stands by his convictions. It's been more than two months since last season's Sprint Cup championship race ended, an eternity since the strong words at Texas and that fuel stop at Phoenix, and still those issues stalk the crew chief of the No. 11 car like a shadow. Hindsight would appear to present ample opportunity for dissection of the what-ifs and the could-have-beens, for the offering of regrets, for the second-guessing that would naturally accompany a tight title chase and a disappointing outcome.

Mike Ford does not play that game. Does it hurt? Sure. Still does, given that they had the lead with one to go, given that no one came closer to ending Jimmie Johnson's championship reign until Ford and Denny Hamlin crawled within 39 points of doing it last season. But the pain of a missed opportunity isn't to be confused with remorse. The former, it's quite evident, still burns within Ford, who played so central a role in how everything ultimately broke down in 2010. The latter, though, does not exist.

"I don't regret any of it. ... I answered a question, honestly. A lot of times people beat around the bush, and I'd rather not say anything than give a lie or say something I don't truly feel."

--MIKE FORD

"You never get over it. You'll never, never get over that," said Ford, reflecting on a championship bid that he and Hamlin seemed to have in their grasp until the final laps of the year's penultimate event. "This is your life, this is what you do. Your families pay a price for you doing this. You never get over this. That said, if you turn that energy into motivation, you'll be better in the end because of it. That's the approach. It will hurt forever. I don't think it will ever let up. In hindsight, there's nothing you could have done in the situation any different, so you've got to have peace of mind in that."

Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs can understand. "My dad went to four Super Bowls, and won three," he said, referring to the team owner and former Washington Redskins coach. "The one you lost, it's like, I wish we didn't even go. It was miserable. That's kind of the way second is. ... You're so close, it's almost easier to finish third, fourth of fifth. But I think the reality of it is, when you kind of take a step back and look at it, at the end of the day we're not bad. What we learned, we can apply and grow together. It is one of those things where it makes you stronger."

Hamlin said he got over the championship loss right after banquet week in Las Vegas, when after reliving the narrow defeat for a week he flipped off the television and mentally moved forward to 2011. His crew chief, though, clearly carries it around as motivation. No single moment in last year's Chase garnered as much attention as the momentum-swinging incident late at Phoenix, where Johnson saved fuel, Hamlin had to stop, and what seemed an overwhelming margin in favor of the No. 11 car suddenly dropped to a surmountable one. But to Ford, it all goes much deeper than that. Hamlin's title effort, he contends, wasn't lost on one single afternoon in Arizona.

He looks back at Dover, a track where Hamlin has often struggled, and the points they lost on restarts. He looks back at Charlotte, where he thinks they had a better car than the fourth-place finish indicated. He looks back at Kansas, where Ford said it took an "absolute struggle" to finish 12th. He looks back at all those moments during the season where the No. 11 car finished somewhere in the teens, and wonders what it takes to get it in the top 10 with more regularity. A lot of other people want to boil the runner-up finish down to one singular moment. From his perch up on the box, the crew chief sees things differently.

"You look back at the mistakes that you made," Ford said. "Every race team out here probably has a 20-page sheet of mistakes that they made throughout those 10 races. You go back and you look at the opportunity you had, and if you can fix half of those, that increases your chances even more. The thing that's exciting about this race team is that we're still on an upswing. They [the No. 48 team] have somewhat plateaued. We got close this year, and everybody looks at one instance to not cause it, but there were several throughout. Everyone seems to remember the latter of all those. You look at what the potential is to improve for [this] season, and it's very promising for us. We got close, but we're not done."

Strong words from a guy who can unleash a few from time to time, as he did after a victory last fall at Texas that had Hamlin seemingly in control of the Chase. That same afternoon, Chad Knaus completely swapped out Johnson's pit crew due to poor performance. "I think our race team is better than their race team, and I'm not going to tiptoe around them," the No. 11 crew chief said from under the brim of his new cowboy hat, looking very much like the new sheriff in town. Now, anyone who speaks to Ford regularly in the garage area knows he can be refreshingly blunt. He'll speak just as frankly about his own team if the situation calls for it. But that day he was speaking to a much wider audience, and suddenly he was seen as trash-talking the No. 48.

Again, there are no regrets. "I'm a quiet guy, and don't say a whole lot, but do speak my mind when asked at times. I don't regret any of it. ... I answered a question, honestly. A lot of times people beat around the bush, and I'd rather not say anything than give a lie or say something I don't truly feel," Ford said.

"I think what you were seeing was passion. Not animation, passion. Anybody gets in our way, we just knock them the heck out. [It was] one of those type emotions. No one's been able to get that close to the 48 as long as Denny's been in this sport, so to have things lined up in that manner and to have the season that we had ... the second race of the Chase to have the whole [Kevin] Harvick incident at Dover ... it was an in-your-face kind of Chase. I'm a quiet guy, but you back me in a corner and you say things, and I'll come swinging."

Which is what everyone expects the No. 11 team to do in 2011. Hamlin's to-do list focuses on mental toughness, on fine-tuning his driving skills, on making incremental gains in those incremental areas that separated him from Johnson last year. Ford wants to see a little more consistency in finishes, given that his vehicles were either in the top five or off the radar screen last season, without much in between. But there's no brooding over what might have been. Faced with the same situations, Ford would make the same calls.

"You can second-guess all you want to, but then the answers come up, [and] you did all you could do," the crew chief said. "You just have to walk away."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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