The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship will be decided not only by the drivers but their teams in the pits.
In-race decisions by the crew chiefs, the hands-on preparations and adjustments made by the crew members, and the coordination between the four contending drivers and their teams will impact the drama as it unfolds in South Florida.
“It will be a battle of mental toughness,” predicts Luke Lambert, the 32-year-old crew chief for Ryan Newman and the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
“At any given point throughout the weekend, each of the four championship contenders will be faced with situations that will be less than ideal. Exactly what that is going to look like, I can’t say, but the team with the best mental toughness will be the one that rises above.”
Guaranteed, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday (3 p.m. on ESPN) will be a Sprint Cup event like no other. For the first time, four and only four drivers have the chance to win the title. The champion won’t necessarily have to win the race – just find a way to finish in front of his other three rivals because previous points don’t matter.
“We’ll definitely monitor what’s going on with the other competitors,” said Darian Grubb, crew chief for Denny Hamlin. “You don’t have to win. You just have to be in front of the other three – and you don’t have to be in front the whole race – only at the end of 400 miles. Before that, it doesn’t really matter what position you are on the track.”
If experience becomes the deciding factor, give Hamlin and Grubb the edge. Grubb, 39, captured the 2011 Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Tony Stewart. Hamlin has won the final race of the year at Homestead twice in nine starts, including last year with Grubb as his crew chief.
“We should be able to adapt and do what we have to do to perform,” Grubb said Tuesday when NASCAR got the four championship-contending crew chiefs together for a teleconference. “The fact that we were able to win last year shows that we know how to run up front.
“I’ve won twice here as a crew chief, Denny has won the race twice and raced for the championship under similar circumstances, so the pressure should not make us crack where some other guys down there may.”
Hamlin is a decidedly more mature driver than he was in 2010 when he came to Homestead leading the points but succumbed to the pressure and could not hold off Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
“Denny is that relaxed individual now,” Grubb said. “He’s matured a ton since the last time he was here in a battle for a championship. He knows that adding stress is not going to add anything to performance. We had some pretty big problems at Phoenix (on Sunday) and he didn’t get out of control. We managed to get a top-five out of it and make our way to the Championship Round.”
Like each of his three competitors, Kevin Harvick has never won a Sprint Cup title. But he seems unlikely to crack. And if momentum matters, he and crew chief Rodney Childers might have an advantage.
Harvick has two victories in the last five races, including Sunday’s dominant performance at Phoenix International Raceway. Moreover, Harvick has finished in the top 10 in 11-of-13 career starts at Homestead, including in each of the last six years.
“Anytime you win a race going into that last one, I think it gives everyone a boost,” said Childers, thrilled with the progress his team has made, considering it had to build a program from the ground up in Harvick’s first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“We had parts and pieces that had never been raced before,” Childers said. “When we started the season, we didn’t have a single chassis, radiator, not even fuel lines. … We were building our trailer. We didn’t have a jackstand or a bench for our shop. Every bit of that, we had to make. The coolest thing was to see how hard everyone worked to get all that stuff done.”
Undeterred by a start to the season in which Harvick finished 36th or lower in four of the first seven races, the Stewart-Haas team preserved. They found speed for Harvick, who won eight Coors Light Pole Awards, including two in the Chase after he and non-Chase qualifier Tony Stewart swapped pit crews.
“Going into that deal, we all knew that something had to be done,” said Childers, who has top 10s in six of the first nine Chase races. “The crew that had been on the 14 had been in high-pressure situations before and we all thought about what was the right thing to do for the company. This wasn’t just Kevin saying he didn’t like his pit crew. We all thought this was the right thing to do to win a championship.”
But if the team that best overcomes adversity prevails, well Todd Gordon and driver Joey Logano might have the inside track. Running second 125 laps into Sunday’s race, that was Logano’s fuel can that went sliding into the next pit stall, resulting in a penalty that left him in 29th place and ultimately put him a lap down.
The previous week, at Texas, it was loose lug nuts in the last 40 laps that dropped Logano from fourth to 22nd. But the 24-year-old Team Penske driver recovered to salvage a 12th-place finish and take the points lead into Phoenix.
“We’ve faced adversity in the last two weeks and recovered from it,” Gordon said. “It’s a statement of where this team is and what we’re made of.”
Gordon believes Logano has what it takes to be a champion.
“When Joey walked in here (from Joe Gibbs Racing last year), I think he walked in with confidence and knew what he needed in a race car,” Gordon said. “He knew this was his opportunity and his race team and he’s owned that.
“That confidence is something that we believe in – and this whole race team believes in Joey. He’s 24 years old now and he’s been in the Cup Series for six years. He’s got a lot of bangs and bruises, but he understands the business and what it takes for us to be successful together. ”
If consistency wins over speed, Lambert and Newman will be the perfect combination. The only team of the four not to test at Homestead, Newman has yet to win a race this season but utilized top 10s in five of the last seven Chase races and a last-lap bump of Kyle Larson at Phoenix to nudge his way into The Championship 4.
“As that lap unfolded, I was just curious if it would be possible for Ryan to mount any sort of challenge and get door-to-door with the 42,” Lambert said. “I guess I was a bit in shock watching it all unfold and pleased to see what we needed to happen for us to transfer.”
Lambert won’t be surprised if any team shifts its focus from its own car to what competitors are doing late in Sunday’s race.
“Early on, you have to execute the best you possibly can,” he said. “I don’t think early in the race it will be very important to focus on what the other teams are doing. In the closing stages, when you’re down to one final pit stop or the final run or run-and-a-half, then you start racing against your competitors.”