The Frontstretch: No Place for Sentamentality: Johnson, Harvick Crew Swaps Were the Right Move by Amy Henderson -- Thursday November 11, 2010

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No Place for Sentamentality: Johnson, Harvick Crew Swaps Were the Right Move

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday November 11, 2010


October 25, 1986: The Boston Red Sox are poised on the brink of winning it all. Not only this World Series, but their first in 68 long and trying years, hung in the balance, just one out-one pitch-away. In the bottom of the 10th inning, with a 5-3 lead, Red Sox manager John McNamara made one fateful move, or lack thereof, that would send Red Sox nation into a tailspin. He left ailing first baseman Bill Buckner in the game. McNamara would say after the Series was over that he’d left Buckner in so that he could be on the field for the victory celebration.

Only, because of McNamara’s sentimental move, that celebration never came. In the bottom of the 10th, the Mets rallied, but it seemed like too little, too late as, down to the final out, Mookie Wilson stepped to the plate. Wilson ran the pitch count to one strike, then two, and with the count full, hit the 10th pitch of the at-bat down the first base line. It was just a little dribbler, and any reasonably healthy first baseman would have made the final out easily. But Buckner was far from healthy, with knee and back issues, and couldn’t get his glove down in time. The ball squirted between his legs and into right field as the winning run crossed home plate. Already beaten, the Red Sox limped through Game 7, losing 8-5. There wouldn’t be a next year either for these Red Sox. 1986 had been a dream season that they couldn’t duplicate.

While there were other mistakes leading up to that one agonizing ground ball, what it boils down to is this: Managing with his heart, John McNamara left Bill Buckner in the game too long, and Buckner couldn’t get it done when it counted. Had McNamara put a healthy first baseman in the field in the bottom of the 10th inning, Buckner would have been part of a monumental victory celebration. Instead, he will forever be remembered as the goat, the one who let it all get away. Everyone watching, Sox fans or not, knew a replacement was needed, but it never came.

Fast forward to 2010, and NASCAR is in the final innings of the Chase, its own version of the World Series and the stakes, to the drivers, their teams and fans, are just as high. The championship of the sport is at stake, and with it the victory celebration, bragging rights in Las Vegas and at every track next year. Why wouldn’t a team do everything it takes to win? Why should they do anything but that? Who wouldn’t replace Bill Buckner with a fielder better able to do the job in the bottom of the 10th?

Yet when two championship contenders did exactly that and replaced underperforming pit crews with crews who could bring them the championship, they got nothing but criticism for the moves from many fans and media.


I say both teams made the right move. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer swapped crews a few weeks ago as Harvick needed an edge in his title bid. Following Sunday’s race at Texas, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swapped crews as well, hoping to stop the bleeding as Johnson’s unprecedented bid for a fifth straight title took a staggering blow as Denny Hamlin won the race and took the points lead. It wasn’t favoritism from team owners Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick, as has been suggested-both Bowyer and Gordon are out of championship contention. Bowyer was, for all intents and purposes, taken out of contention after a 150-point penalty for an illegal chassis mount at Loudon, and Gordon was eliminated at Texas provided the leader starts at Phoenix and Homestead. It’s not as if the owners wanted one team to win more than the other.

For all the work the No. 48 crew has done on Jimmie Johnson’s cars in 2010, it’s been the driver carrying the team throughout the Chase, making a change all the more necessary.

In fact, the swap at RCR produced a win for Bowyer with Harvick’s former crew at Talladega-so it’s not as if these are second rate guys. Some of Johnson’s crew have three or four championships and are capable of turning spectacular stops-who’s to say they won’t do just that and return to form under new leadership. Sometimes a change is good for everyone involved. It’s not about favoritism-the swaps were all among Chase teams. It’s not like Johnson got Gordon’s guys and Gordon got Joe Nemechek’s team or something.

Many will argue that the crews got their drivers that far and didn’t deserve to be replaced. Baloney. This is the highest level of a major sport. If you aren’t getting it done at this level, you can and will be replaced with someone who can and will perform. Harvick and Johnson’s teams weren’t getting it done. Johnson’s crew, in particular, has been a liability to their driver for much of the season.

Simply put, a driver’s best opportunity to gain multiple positions on the racetrack is after a pit stop for fresh tires, especially if the stops are under caution and there’s a restart to gather the field. A driver in a good car can pick up several spots on a restart before the tires begin to wear and the filed spreads out. But in Johnson’s case, slow or botched pit stops were routinely costing him 5-10 positions in the field. Instead of gaining position on those critical restarts, Johnson was using his equipment to make up those spots he lost on pit road. And it’s happened with enough regularity that it in all likelihood already cost Johnson the championship.

There are those who say that Johnson’s (and Harvick’s) team got their drivers to this point, but for much of the season, that’s not the case-Johnson has been the one carrying them, finishing in the top 5 many weeks in which he lost positions on at least one pit stop. His finishes this Chase have been impressive with just one outside the top 10 and only two out of the top 5. But in the Chase, that’s simply not enough, and there are races that Johnson-and Harvick-might have won with better help on pit road.

So it came down to moves that didn’t give anyone the warm fuzzies. As Red Sox Nation can tell you, the warm fuzzies go away pretty quickly when you lose.

Johnson and Harvick didn’t come this far-Johnson leading most of the Chase and Harvick most of the regular season-to lose, and that’s what it comes down to. Bowyer and Gordon aren’t getting second-rate crews either. Bowyer’s new crew already proved they can win races, and it’s likely that Gordon’s will as well-they’ve been there before, and if crew chief Steve Letarte can get them on track, they can again.

Heck, Bill Buckner (who, incidentally, hails from the same hometown as Gordon) played a few seasons after that World Series loss, a valuable veteran asset to the California Angels in particular, batting .306 and driving home 32 runs in just 52 games with the Angels in 1987. In fact, Buckner returned to the Boston Red Sox, where he would end his career, to a standing ovation. The fans knew what he had contributed. Buckner was a former batting champion and an All-Star-it wasn’t that he wasn’t good. The time and place for him at the World Series was simply wrong, and it cost far too much.

So two NASCAR teams did what the Red Sox should have on that chilly October night and replaced players that weren’t performing. It wasn’t “cheating,” it wasn’t heartless, and it wasn’t condescending to their teammates. It was a move attempting to win a championship-and it was the right move. If Johnson or Harvick win the championship, their teammates will celebrate at their side. I can promise you that the drivers, their teammates, and their fans would rather have that celebration than not. Just ask John McNamara and Bill Buckner which they’d rather have done.

Contact Amy Henderson

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11/12/2010 07:25 AM

100% correct, Amy. A good article.

Carl D.
11/12/2010 08:22 AM

I agree it was the right move. Of course, it was a move that only a multi-car superteam could make, but since there are only multi-car superteams in the chase (and let’s face it… only multi-car superteams even have a chance at making chase), it’s a fair move.

Sherri T
11/12/2010 09:06 AM

I still think it takes the shine off the trophy if Jimmie wins the Championship, that for the last 2 1/2 races the guys that got him most of the way there got booted because of a bad day that was, other than the front tire carrier, was mostly not their fault.

I also, as a Jeff Gordon fan, would like to see how much closer to that top spot Gordon could finish the season off with his own crew and as a Gordon fan felt that taking his crew away was a negative statement.

It’s not the first time that Jeff’s sacrificed for Jimmie and I’d like to see HMS show more support for the 24 team as well as the 5 & 88.

11/12/2010 09:41 AM

Sad to say but the team didn’t get JJ there, he got there inspite of the team. Anybody that has been really watching knows they were having pit stop problems even back to the chase last year. They stayed loyal too long.

11/12/2010 12:15 PM

Amy i would love to see your reaction if you were replaced live on tv in the middle of this column. It is one thing to change crews during the week before a race, it quite another to be replaced live on tv. I hope it backfires on jj.

11/12/2010 12:44 PM

I’ve heard alot of stories trying to remove the blame from Buckner, but never that convoluted one!!Is that some kind of Redsox lore?
How bout this , since ol JJ didn’t qualify so well, we replace him with another driver? and Chad made some questionable calls, so let’s get Retarte(sic) over there.
Maybe we need to get a Toyota ready for these final races??? Where does it end.
People that really get racing know there’s no comparing it to the stick and ball sports,that’s WHY THE SPORT, IS IN THE SHAPE THAT IT IS.
Thank you Brainfart France.

11/12/2010 01:38 PM

EZ-I believe it’s Dan Shaughnessy’s fantastic book, One Strike Away, which documents McNamara’s postgame comments about keeping Buckner in for the celebration. There are a couple other books about the subject which might contain that info, but I’m 99% sure that’s the one.

Drivers and crew chiefs are replaced all the time when they are not performing-why should pit crew memebers be exempt from that? If you are costing the team wins and championships, why should you be exempt from that?

Stan-While in most cases, NASCAR can’t and shouldn’t be compared to stick-and-ball sports, in this case, it can and should-players who are not living up to expectations in major sports are replaced on live national television all the time. Should a pitcher who is being shelled or a QB who is throwing interceptions not be removed from the game because it might hurt his feelings? Why is this any different. Those guys helped their teams at other times, too.

Again I say this-why should a team “have to” keep anyone-driver, crew chief, pit crew, or otherwise, who is not performing up to the team’s standards?

11/12/2010 02:30 PM

So the pit crew that got you within 2 1/2 races of the championship suddenly isn’t good enough? And the pit crew that did just that gets replaced live on tv. What a frigging joke. Same goes for the #29 car. Harvick derides his pit crew over the air. What a bunch of petulant pretty boys. This kind of stuff is the reason for the dis-connect between nas$car and it’s fans.

11/12/2010 03:10 PM

midasmichah, see above. Linda has it right. It’s obvious you haven’t been watching Jimmie’s crew closely for any length of time. Jimmie has been carrying THEM all season. Like Linda says, Jimmie’s there IN SPITE of his over-the-wall gang, not BECAUSE of them. And stan, you’re missing Amy’s point. It’s cold-blooded calculation – and if she were replaced mid-story, I’m sure she’s professional enough to realize there was a reason. So what if it was live on TV? You think Chad or Mr. Hendrick cares? So let’s all stop with the boo-hooing for the “poor team members”. They know what’s at stake and they know where they stand.

11/12/2010 08:59 PM

I think the bigger issue of it all really is that you shouldn’t be allowed to switch crews at all. Just as you can’t pull your car behind the wall and swap engines it’s your team good, bad, or indifferent. This is part of the reason that NASCAR is in the shape it is in. We now have these multi-car teams working much like a corporation with it’s various divisions that decides it’s time to outsource it’s crew. NASCAR has lost much of it’s original flare which was that you had guys that would race for a small purse and a trophy and gave no quarter to other drivers.(It wasn’t that long ago either). Now the sport is actually refered to as “the product” and it’s all corporate. Anyone that has ever turned a wrench on a race car understands the passion and drive it takes to prepare a car purely for the joy of racing. If you win a little bit of the purse that was a bonus. Go read some of John Pott’s articles for a glimps of the days before NASCAR went corporate. By the way John, how about writing a book?


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.