Title-contending crew chiefs offer different views
November 12, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Only days away from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the three title-contending crew chiefs sounded very calm and measured Tuesday discussing their championship potential and realities.
There was no locker room bulletin board material offered up. No cocky arrogance or veiled inference from the men behind the scenes.
Two of the three recognize that it will take some very specific scenarios and an off-day from a nearly-never-off team to translate into the sport’s most coveted trophy.
But don’t suggest to the third – championship-leading crew chief Chad Knaus -- that guiding Jimmie Johnson to a sixth Cup title is any sort of slam dunk or that the final round of this title fight lacks for any drama or intensity.
It’s all about perspective. And Knaus has plenty.
"If you don’t think it’s a fiery ending go talk to Denny Hamlin and ask him what happened a couple years ago when he came in (to Homestead) with the points lead," Knaus said, raising his voice in emotion as he reminded reporters of Hamlin losing the 2010 title to Johnson after coming up just short (14th) at Homestead.
"If you don’t think it’s a fiery ending," Knaus cautioned, "then come over here and hop on the pit box and help me try to call the race and make sure you don’t mess up. It’s a very fiery ending. It’s so easy to throw these things away. We see it time and time again.
"There’s things that you cannot control, there’s things you can control and we’ve got to make sure we can control what is in our ability and put our best foot forward.
"It’s not easy going out there and trying to race for 267 laps. It’s not easy at all."
Having participated and prevailed in more championship situations than any other crew chief in the last decade, Knaus knows the trophy isn’t yours until you kiss it and wipe confetti from your eyes.
It’s a moment of pure exuberance that his counterparts, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Jason Ratcliff and Richard Childress Racing’s Gil Martin would like to experience.
Hearing them speak Tuesday, it’s obvious their approaches to the weekend and general demeanor are more similar to one another as championship fate and circumstance have dictated.
Ratcliff’s driver Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by 28 points entering Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 and Martin’s driver Kevin Harvick – last week’s race winner -- is 34 points back.
They realize Johnson wins the championship with a finish of 23rd or better. And that makes not only the math, but the path, more clearly defined. The other two teams must win.
"I hate to oversimplify it, but it’s just that simple. We need to go out here no different than maybe what we did earlier in the season and that is just throw caution to the wind,’’ said Ratcliff, who won a Nationwide Series title for Gibbs.
"We have everything to gain and nothing to lose. We don’t have to play defense. We can be full bore on offense. We can get as aggressive as possible.
"We need to go out and lead a lot of laps and win the race and that’s really all we do do."
While Ratcliff and Martin find themselves at a similar crossroads this season, their road forward couldn’t be more different. This is Ratcliff’s first year with Kenseth, who moved to the Gibbs’ Toyota camp after a career – and the 2003 Cup championship -- driving Fords at Roush Fenway Racing.
Listening to him and Kenseth talk about their maiden season makes this championship go-round feels like a preamble to a future of successful chapters.
Ratcliff echoed Kenseth’s comments following a disappointing 23rd place effort at Phoenix last week that may cost the team a title. As far as they are concerned their first season together (in which Kenseth has won seven races, although Ratcliff was only the crew chief for six of the wins as he served a one-week suspension for a rules violation when Kenseth won at Darlington) exceeded all expectations.
"We feel like we have a good weekend in front of us and if we can go out there and win and lead a lot of laps, then you never know what can happen," Ratcliff said.
"We’re a lot further out than we hoped we would be, but again, we’re still mathematically in it.
"We know how big that would be for us to close out what’s been a great season with a win. Even if we fall short of that championship, that would be an awesome way to close it out for us."
Conversely, Martin and Harvick are trying to create a nice postscript to Harvick’s storied tenure at Childress.
With Harvick moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, this title run is an emotional bookend to 13 triumphant and turbulent years with Childress after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt at RCR a week after the seven-time champ’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
While much of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has focused on Johnson and Kenseth, Harvick has crept right into the mix and never appeared the lame duck some predicted once his 2014 plans were revealed this summer.
"It’s not just proving a point, quite frankly we want to win the championship badly," Martin said. "Everybody wants to feel they’re worthy out there in this garage. … These guys showed this weekend (at Phoenix) that they have tenacity and that they are more than willing to fight to the end to see if we can take the trophy home. I know it’s a David and Goliath task that we’ve got ahead of us right now, but there’s a lot that can happen.
"We want to send Kevin out of here with a championship and that’s what we’re trying to do."