Mike Neff · Thursday January 12, 2006
In a 36-race season in NASCAR Nextel Cup, anything can happen to a race team. As the season winds down to the 10-race Chase to the Championship, every position becomes critical, and each mistake becomes that much more magnified in the eyes of the media, the competitors, and the individual race team themselves. Avoiding a bad finish, or worse, the dreaded DNF, is at the top of the priority list for all of the teams in the hunt for the coveted Championship.
As the Chase was unfolding this year, some teams’ Championship runs were crippled within the first three races. Tony Stewart was on a tear, though, and looked unstoppable as the Chase made its only nighttime start of the “playoffs,” the Saturday night Fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of course, everyone is well aware of the calamity that ensued, and Stewart couldn’t avoid being one of the victims. In fact, it was one single moment during the race for the 20 car that could have changed the outcome of the Championship in 2005.
On lap 217, Tony Stewart was looking like he was going to dominate the last half of the race. As he headed into turn three, his left rear tire went down, and he spun into the outside wall. The back of the car was heavily damaged, and Stewart struggled to simply get the car into the pits. The team thrashed for all they were worth to keep him on the lead lap, but with the rear end in shambles, it was obvious that his car was not going to be able to maintain competitive speed.
At that point, the team could have put out the white flag and simply run around until they were parked for being too slow, or put the car on the trailer and chalked the night up to bad luck. But that’s not what championship-caliber teams are made of. The #20 Home Depot crew was determined to put their stamp on the 2005 Championship, and they weren’t going to let the wall at Lowe’s bring their effort to a screeching halt.
So the crew brought the car back in, and took the time on pit road to make it capable of running at race pace. The end result was that Stewart was five laps down to the race leader, but he could run at pace and not be forced to go behind the wall. At that point in time, Stewart fell back in the running order to 35th place.
We all know what happened during the rest of the race: Six more caution flags, seven cars drop out because of accidents, another drops out because of a blown engine, and two more cars are more damaged than Stewart’s and are behind him by the time the checkered flag falls. All of this benefits the 20 team, as the extra time the crew made on pit road to make the right repairs quickly kept Stewart from losing many more laps, and he easily passed the wrecked race cars in the garage area to move up to 25th in the running order by the checkered flag.
Let’s say the crew makes the wrong decisions when Stewart hits the wall, and the team ends up behind the wall in 35th. The difference between the 93 points Stewart received for 25th place and the 58 points he would have received for 35th place is 35. Now, a quick glance at the final standings for 2005 show that Stewart beat Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards by, you guessed it, 35 points. Based on the tie breakers that NASCAR utilizes, Greg Biffle would have then become the 2005 Champion because he won six races vs. Stewart’s five.
There are many things that occur during a race season that allow teams to succeed or fail. Different teams respond in different ways to adversity. For Joe Gibbs Racing and the Home Depot #20 team, there was no such thing as giving up. There is no such thing as accepting less than their best. On a tough night in October, that was never more evident when a 25th place finish was probably the most significant accomplishment for them in the 2005 Chase for the Nextel Cup. Teams should take notice, because it’s exactly this type of effort that’s going to be needed for some lucky group to call themselves Nextel Cup champions at the end of 2006.
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