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Inside NASCAR: Overcoming wrecks an emotional, physical process

November 03, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Crew members work to repair Carl Edwards' damaged car at Phoenix in February. Edwards returned to the track and finished 28th, earning 17 points. (Getty Images)

Overcoming wrecks emotional, physical process; 99 team keeps Edwards on top

Carl Edwards' No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has led the Sprint Cup standings for 19 of the 33 weeks that have been raced this season.

That's a little surprising considering Edwards, who led the league in victories in 2008 when he won nine times, has won only once this season; that victory came 31 races ago, at Las Vegas.

But Edwards, despite not often having a great car and sometimes not even consistently having a competitive one, leads the series in top-five finishes and top-10s, and he's the only driver in the top 10 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup who has no DNFs.

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And that's the responsibility of the team led by crew chief Bob Osborne and his right-hand man, car chief Pierre Kuettel. The pair's engineered a campaign that, with three races remaining, leaves Edwards in an eight-point lead over two-time champion Tony Stewart.

And so, in dealing with wrecks and the sport's other ups and downs that lead to a multi-dimensional deck, Edwards has had plenty of opportunities this season to freak out. According to the driver himself, he's a prime candidate to do just that. But leading the Chase means he's learned to control those emotions nicely.

And Osborne and Kuettel's work has been a big part of that.

"Historically, I've been a guy that can lose my composure as fast as anyone," Edwards said. "It's not natural, to me, to stay calm and try to keep moving forward. My natural reaction is to get really excited, but I think through some of the bad times that we've had and the frustrations that we've had, I think that all those things have helped me realize that, 'Hey, look, the goal right now is to go out and win this championship,' and we've been working hard toward that goal.

"I think as a team, Bob Osborne and I are able to approach problems pretty methodically and calmly, and I think all of that stuff adds up to a majority of the reason we've led the points for half of the season. I think that those lessons, we've been applying them."

When philosophy means everything

Kuettel is straight up about the process, saying, "I believe all 36 races are just as important as the 10 races in the Chase." There's no mistaking his affinity for his driver, but when he's on the ground behind his pit box during a race, Kuettel has a sole focus when mayhem breaks out on the track and the 99's in the middle of it.

"The emotion, first of all is, what have you lost in points -- what have you lost in overall positions?" Kuettel said. "After that, it's a matter of looking and trying to gather the most information you can, whether it's from video [on the pit box] or over the radio from the spotter or driver [on what the damage is].

"Once you figure out where the car is going, to pit road or the garage ... obviously you make beeline tracks if it's going [to the garage]."

In that instant maelstrom of thoughts and actions, Kuettel laughed at how the most trivial things can instantly become relatively huge.

"It's even as simple as trying to get the tow-truck driver to put the car in the right spot," Kuettel said. "It almost gets to the point where you jump on the truck and tell them where you want [the car] because it's gonna save time as far as dropping the car and starting to work on it."

In Kuettel's mind, where simplification is key, a point is a point, no matter where it's scored.

"We try to prepare, actually, early on in the year because yeah, the Chase is important and maybe you focus a little bit more on it," Kuettel said. "But you're still getting points all year long. You still have to be in the top [12] to make the Chase.

It's the job of Pierre Kuettel (left) and Bob Osborne to get the 99 on the track; it's up to Carl Edwards to do the rest, which he has with series-highs of 16 top-fives and 23 top-10s. (Getty Images)

"Crash damage early in the year can make a difference come Richmond [and determining the Chase qualifiers]. If you've lost the points that would have made the difference between [12th and 13th] -- that's big."

Damage control at its finest

Kuettel is nothing if he's not organized, which reflects similar strategies that are employed up and down the line in every NASCAR garage. Once he knows where his damaged car is going, the process swings into motion.

"Once the car gets in the garage, we have groups of people -- guys that work on the suspension, guys that work on the body -- and they go to work on that," Kuettel said. "You kind of stand back and instruct those groups on what they need to do and try to get the car back out there.

"So we try to make sure we can get it back out, that it's going to be able to turn minimum speed and we're not going to have to come back in for something silly, and lose more laps than if we'd just fixed it right the first time and completed the rest of the race."

Damage control, just like any other aspect of racing, is the ultimate form of teamwork. Osborne's ultimately responsible for the entire race package. But Kuettel is Osborne's "hands-on connection to that race car."

"When stuff starts happening, Bob's like my spotter," Kuettel said of their in-race relationship. "If I'm over the wall working on [the car] he's seeing other things going on. He's in a position to tell me exactly how much time I have to work on it [because] I can't tell where the pace car is on the track, so Bob needs to tell us to get it buttoned up and get back on the track [without losing a lap].

""When you go to the garage ... you're in a point-salvage mode. When you're repairing stuff on pit road you're still in a position-salvage mode."

--PIERRE KUETTEL


_______________________

"I would not change a member of our team [because] I feel like we've got the best team in the garage right now."

--CARL EDWARDS

"When you're running paced laps and you've only got a minute and a half to work on it it's really hard to watch the watch and figure out where the pace car is; so he's the eyes, making sure we don't go laps down while I've got to assess the damage.

"You have to determine that, say, you have five things to do and this is the most important and I've got to get him back in here and get it done and then work on items two, three, four and five."

Does what he's juggling sound like the dilemmas facing an emergency room doctor? Kuettel shook his head and laughed.

"I never thought about it that way, but I guess it does, like you're doing really heavy trauma," he said. "Your patient's hurt pretty bad and you just keep doing what you can."

The routine is similar but the intensity is not when comparing working in the garage to scrambling to make repairs on pit road, with its cramped confines punctuated by cars racing past.

"Making pit-road repairs go smoother is probably more difficult than the garage repairs, because usually when you go to the garage you've sustained some pretty heavy damage and at that point, you're in a point-salvage mode," Kuettel said. "When you're repairing stuff on pit road you're still in a position-salvage mode, where you can stay on the lead lap."

Kuettel cited last weekend's race at Martinsville as the perfect example. Both Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin's cars sustained damage in a Lap 9 pileup. Both finished top-five.

"That was the perfect example of guys getting stuff done on pit road that really needed to," Kuettel said. "To sustain the damage that they did but to still be contending for the win at the end was pretty impressive."

And Kuettel confirmed what Edwards continually has said about his team is true, especially in the Chase as they've taken cars that were not spot-on and made them better. In more than one instance this season, they've minimized point losses due to damaged cars.

"I would not change a member of our team [because] I feel like we've got the best team in the garage right now," Edwards said. "Yeah, we have not had the fastest race cars for the last few weeks, but I think our ability to take those race cars and take those really bad days and turn them into something positive, I think it says a lot about our team.

"We've come a long ways in the last few years and I think that is one of the toughest things to do in this sport, is to be in an accident or be having a bad day or have a bad pit stop and to rebound from it."

The Chase is a different animal

But the Chase, with its unmitigated intensity during a 10-week stretch, does call for a little bit more. As Kuettel put it, "You ramp it up a little bit and knock the dust off your playbook. You look at what's changed from the beginning of the year to now and how can we either improve those situations, or are there different pieces and parts we can put into use?"

In 2005, Roush Fenway had all five of its cars in the Chase. John Monsam, who was a crew chief for Roush's Truck Series program at the time, became the crash-cart man for the 10-race Chase. He was charged with outfitting the giant cart with everything needed to rebuild a car, from a frame machine to body parts to replacement suspension items to radiators and oil coolers, and overseeing its dispersal.

"We had every piece but the roof, to rebuild a complete car," Monsam said. "I went to every department head and got everything we needed. All the crews were really good at repairing crash damage, and the crew chiefs still oversaw it. I was just responsible for having the cart there with all the stuff on it."

Kuettel said RFR has several team members who can multitask, but some things are similar.

"We've still got the whole pit cart idea, but you look at some of these [garage] stalls and they've almost got too much stuff in there. Where are you gonna put the car?" Kuettel said, chuckling. "They may take as much time getting all the stuff out of the way as they do getting the car in there and then unloading the cart, kind of putting the cart before the horse."

But Monsam cited one thing that hasn't changed since the Chase format was introduced in 2004.

The 99 crew has to be right-on when something goes wrong for Carl Edwards. (Getty Images)

"You don't give up on anything in the Chase -- every point really matters," Monsam said. "Especially at Talladega, where you could fix your car and 40 laps later there'd be another big accident and you could pick up spots."

When the sum's the total of the parts

To Kuettel everything adds up to bring his team to its present condition and ability.

"The advantage you have from every crash that you work on, is what you learn," Kuettel said. "So when you come out of a certain crash you realize, 'We could have done this better by doing this.' "

That's exactly what occurred after Edwards lost 25 laps at the July Daytona race, where he spun early in the race and damaged his car. In that event, Kuettel and company got to practice both elements of damage control as, initially, they effected basic body repairs to keep the car as close to the lead lap as possible.

But the car's interior crush panels that prevent noxious fumes from reaching the driver's compartment were damaged and ultimately the team had to make more extensive repairs. But the lessons learned went into the memory bank, though Kuettel has no idea when they'll be used.

"Since that crash we've actually built different pieces and panels to facilitate that specific accident, or an accident that would be similar to that," Kuettel said. "In learning that, we've updated parts and pieces to make that a faster repair the next time, even though we have no idea whether that will happen or not.

"Blowing crush panels out of a car happens every once in a while. It's not like that's something you'll never see again."

In the end, Kuettel said the new panels would make the fix "25 percent quicker than it was the first time we had to do it."

The learning process never stops. Kuettel recalled a test early this season, in which "we dipped the front end and blew the nose off. We said, 'If this happens we're gonna have to replace the whole nose piece.' "

It just so happened that, at the season's second race, at Phoenix, Edwards spun off Turn 2 and disrupted his car's front bodywork.

"Because we'd lucked out and saw a potential problem in an earlier test, we were actually able to make a fix so that when we got into that situation at that first Phoenix race we made the decision to cut the whole front end off and replace it, because everything from the bumper down was gone, and how are you gonna fix that? Well, we knew how."

As good as they've become at it, Kuettel said there are limits.

"It's really hard to prepare for disasters all the time, because everything's always changing," Kuettel said. "Sometimes you can be prepared for anything, and [something else happens] and all you can do is react and hope that you're as prepared as you think you are."

On the downside

You just knew there had to be one.

"Here's the problem with crashing," Kuettel said, sounding like someone who's been there and done that, and he has been around the sport a long time. "If you crash a lot, you're never gonna run up front. But you're really good at crash repair. But if you run up front, you don't crash a lot, so you get a little rusty on crash repair.

"It's really hard to prepare for every scenario you might see in a race, and you can't practice crash repair like you practice pit stops. But you have basic stuff that you've got to get done, like setting toe and things like that, that are covered in your basic pit-stop area."

Kuettel, who's involved in the ground-up construction of Edwards' race cars, knows his limits when it comes to repairing damage. And rather than affecting anything in the build process, he finds building a better mousetrap involves what happens on the other end.

"You build these cars as light as you possibly can -- you build them not to crash," Kuettel said. "You can't build it saying we're gonna wreck this thing so we need to build it stronger. We're building these cars to be as fast as possible, all the time.

"So the preparation goes into the second part, how can we make the repairs as smooth as possible and as quick as possible to be as effective as possible?"

Watch highlights of Carl Edwards' 2011 season:

The proof is in the performance

Time after time, particularly in the third Chase race, at Kansas, where Edwards had a poorly performing car early in the race only to rebound to finish second and maintain his points lead, and then the last two weeks at Talladega and Martinsville, where he finished 11th and ninth, respectively -- his worst two Chase finishes -- the team has stood out.

And the competition, specifically five-time defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, has noticed, from his sixth-place position in the points.

"It's so tough today to recover from being a lap down if not multiple laps down," Johnson said. "My experience has been that it's hard to fix a car on pit road when you have all the practice sessions and gone behind the wall and worked on it -- it's hard to get it right on pit road and come back and be competitive and get a good finish.

"[I'm] certainly impressed at their ability to maintain focus and turn a bad day around because it's really tough to do in today's world."

Edwards, more than anyone, knows what he's dealing with -- and he makes sure everyone in earshot knows it. And Kuettel knows what that's all about, down to the last nut, bolt and piece of duct tape and Bear Bond. Kansas was one thing, but he could have just as easily have been talking about Phoenix as Daytona as Indianapolis or Talladega or Martinsville.

"In that day, you look at the end of the day and you say, 'Wow, we cheated death there, and it worked out,' " Kuettel said with a laugh. "In a crash-repair situation, you may not see that effort [pay off] until Race 26, or Race 36.

"You'll say, 'Man, I'm glad we got that thing fixed in time because if we'd lost just four more points, we'd have been sweating it a lot worse,' you know what I mean? The immediate things, when you avert disaster like [at Martinsville] or Talladega, those you take away and you're like, 'Man, we had a great finish there.'

"In a situation like Daytona you might hope that you could have fixed it better. In the end it didn't make a difference because we qualified for the Chase and the points were reset so it didn't make a difference, but you never know.

"So those crash repairs you don't really see the satisfaction until the end, when you can say to yourself we did that one good, but I know what we can do to make that one better. But that process never ends."

Watch highlights of 2011 wrecks and crashes:

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