The Frontstretch: Back to the Future: Pit Crew Swap For No. 48 Team Foreshadows A Monumental Meltdown by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday November 10, 2010

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Back to the Future: Pit Crew Swap For No. 48 Team Foreshadows A Monumental Meltdown

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday November 10, 2010


In 2005, Jimmie Johnson left Texas Motor Speedway 38 points behind eventual champion Tony Stewart with only two races remaining. 14 days later, that Chase culminated in Johnson driving around on a flat tire for two laps before backing it into the wall. The friction between driver and crew chief nearly tore them apart, and led to the now infamous “milk and cookies” meeting with team owner Rick Hendrick.

Five years later, Johnson and Knaus find themselves behind current leader Denny Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford’s No. 11 Toyota team. The Lowe’s Hendrick Motorsports team could never seem to consistently beat the Joe Gibbs Racing team during that 2005 campaign, and in 2010 history appears to be repeating itself, albeit with a different opposing driver and crew chief from the JGR stables – and now, apparently, a new pit crew for the No. 48.

Going into the penultimate race at Phoenix, Hamlin leads Johnson by 33 points, and third-place challenger Kevin Harvick by 59 markers. The race for the championship is far from over. However, those midseason chinks in the No. 48’s armor that everybody was going on about all summer have proven to be the early stages of corrosion. The Kobalt forcefield which Johnson and Knaus had surrounded themselves with over the course of the past four years was brought down Monday evening, when it was confirmed that the No. 48 pit crew would effectively be benched for the final two races – leaving Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 crew the group shouldering the responsibility of completing the Drive for Five.

Jimmie Johnson and crew had maintained their lead over Denny Hamlin up until this past weekend. And in one fell swoop that saw Hamlin surge to victory lane, the No. 48 team may well have unraveled in the same manner that saw them lose the 2005 title to Joe Gibbs Racing.

But what I see, instead, is a revival of the Drive for ’05 – the memorable championship chase where the No. 48 group completely melted down and nearly tore themselves apart.

Going back to last Sunday, the impetus behind the move was the fact that the No. 48 crew had lost positions on all but two pit stops. Some of these mistakes have been well-documented; difficulty getting into the box, Paul Menard in such close proximity that he inadvertently booted a tire while leaving, and recurring issues on the right front of the car. After teammate Jeff Gordon was turned head-on into the wall by Jeff Burton on Lap 191, the decision was made to give the No. 24 crew of Steve Letarte and Gordon a shot at it. The analysis from many in the media was swift and consistent.

Feel free to regurgitate whatever cliché you care to – “It’s a results-oriented business,” “it’s no different than a relief pitcher coming in,” or “We needed to make a change,” – because each one is equally tired, trite, and a rationalization more than an explanation. Chad Knaus on Tuesday told ESPN’s NASCAR Now reporter Shannon Spake that the move had been something they planned “for months,” and was not isolated to any one event on Sunday.

So let me get this straight – you had planned all year to swap your four-consecutive-time-Championship crew with the crew that, while your shopmate has not won in over a year and a half, was essentially feuding with your driver earlier in the season? Was this idea before or after he won his sixth race of the season? To quote Dr. Evil, “…..rrrriiiighhht…”

Let’s take a look at the No. 48’s Chase performances so far, aside from the 25th-place result at the first race in New Hampshire –

Dover: Win
Kansas: 2nd
Fontana: 3rd
Charlotte: 3rd
Martinsville: 5th
Talladega: 7th
Texas: 9th

By the looks of it, the only sub top-10 performance by this group so far was the first race out of the gate, which was largely the result of getting caught up in two spins that were not of their doing.

For shame, No. 48 crew!

It isn’t as if these men were the reason for much of the talk of the No. 48’s reign being over this past summer. It was not the pit crew that caused Johnson to miss the pit entrance at Chicago after dominating the first half of the race. Was it the right front tire changer’s fault he lost it at Charlotte during the Coca-Cola 600 and drove it into the inside retaining wall on the backstretch? I’ll have to YouTube this next one, but I’m pretty sure Mike Lingerfelt didn’t spin Jimmie at Watkins Glen, slide up into him during the Southern 500 at Darlington – or drive across Greg Biffle’s nose at Talladega.

Perhaps it is the No. 48 crew’s fault that they kept him up front at Bristol long enough this past August to get hooked into the fence by Juan Pablo Montoya, after leading 191 laps? Using this logic, Johnson should have been swapped out for Jeff Gordon earlier in the season to give him a shot at a fifth title – or even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for an opportunity to merely win a race.

What happens if Knaus botches a pit call or runs it out of gas? Do Steve Letarte or Alan Gustafson start picking up their gear for a jog down to the silver and blue war wagon? Sure, RCR may swapped crews between the Nos. 29 and 33 teams, but at least they had the decency to do it post-race.

Taking everything into consideration, I see the No. 48 crew being made a scapegoat of sorts. It’s masking a lack of confidence in either the driver, crew chief, or entire organization that has led what has been the most dominant team in NASCAR since Petty’s Plymouths and Dodges ruled the roost in the early-mid 1970s, a maneuver setting up the most visible racing team in American motorsports for a major league choke job.

So instead of rallying the troops and giving them an opportunity to redeem themselves at a track that they have won at four times in the last six starts – the others being a fourth and a third – you hit the eject button, then swap out the crew of the No. 24 car. It is not only uncharacteristic and unfortunate, but also almost unfathomable for this bunch. Is there any driver/crew chief/crew in history that has been synonymous with each other as the triad of Johnson/Knaus/and the No. 48 Lowe’s team?

Some may call this a tactical error. Others, such as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford, have deemed it, “kind of a desperation move.” That quote may have been simply some post-win exuberance, braggadocios bravado, or maybe a bit of psychological warfare, but it really is hard to find fault with his comments.

Ford continued on, saying, “I think our race team is better than their race team, and I’m not going to tiptoe around them because of where they’re at. I’m going to do what it’s going to require for us to win a championship and beat them. Not that I’m playing dirty by any means, but we’ll take what’s ours, and I’m not afraid to go toe-to-toe with them.”

In this game of Championship Chase Chicken, it looks like Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports blinked first. Should the No. 48 crew rally and win the title, it will carry a bit of a stigma to it, having had to use half of the race day manpower of Hendrick Motorsports to beat the core group of the No. 11 FedEx team. However, if Knaus and the new pseudo-48 bunch fails to come back, how much of it will be attributed to not playing as a team, staying together, and leaning on the family that just made history last year by becoming the only team to have won four consecutive championship in this or any era in NASCAR?

It isn’t typically the last race that determines the champion in NASCAR, but the events that happen two or three weeks before the final checkered flag of the season. No matter the outcome of the 2010 Chase for the Championship, there is a pretty good chance that Texas will have been the watershed moment that dictated either an unprecedented fifth title for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team – or a first for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 crew.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Stephen Hood
11/10/2010 06:24 AM

The pit crew swap may be a sign of desperation or it may be a brilliant tactical move. Time will tell. It seems to me that Johnson’s pit crew has had several meltdowns during the past year and there have been multiple times when the crew has allowed Johnson to be passed in the pits. Sunday was a case in point. As I understand NASCAR, the pit crew would be the most expendable part of a NASCAR team, especially when the competition is clipping off pit stops 1/2 second to a full second faster. Loyalty is important but so are results, especially when the championship is within a pit stop or two.

There is a mythology in NASCAR about the team, and the pit crew plays into the mythology. The reality is the pit crew members are expendable to the extent that their underperformance costs the team as a whole. Dale Jr. and Joey Logano are going to be given a lot more room for underperformance than the left tire changers on the 88 and 20 teams. They are like the cashier at McDonalds that can’t keep their drawer in order. The cashier is going to be fired well before the manager gets the boot. Professional sports is a cut throat business, and the only thing that protects the players are contracts or unions or both. In NASCAR the pit crew member probably has no contract and hell will freeze over before there is a union in NASCAR for the drivers and pit crews (crew chiefs would be considered management).

In the end, the 48 crew swaps with the 24. Both are still pitting cars this Sunday. Both have a lot to prove. The former 48 can knock of some quick stops and get Gordon to the front and redeem themselves. The former 24 can knock out some quick stops and boost Johnson to the front and to a 5th championship. The downside is it might fail. But my guess is it will prove to be a brilliant tactical move on the part of the Hendrick organization.

11/10/2010 06:33 AM

I don’t think they’re panicking. Denny and Mike are playing the mind game well, but the Hendrick boys know what they’re doing. They’ve done more radical things than this winning nine championships.

If the crew got benched it was for a good reason that we may not all be in on. Until someone beats the 48 team, they aren’t gonna be champs.

MJR in Springfield Va
11/10/2010 07:04 AM

Let me understand this a little better….you “planned” this pit crew swap for months and it all came together when Gordon’s car ended up as a crumpled-up mess. Perfect timing – I would love to see the flow diagram for that plan.

Hey, what happens if Gordon’s “new” pit crew starts banging out pit stops 1.5 or even 2 seconds faster than Johnson’s “new” pit crew this weekend? Do they switch back? I’m sure they were “planning” that for a while too.

11/10/2010 07:59 AM

OK, Chad’s “we’ve been practicing this” excuse is a complete farce. A “we at HMS must do what we feel gives us the greatest advantage to make up positions on the 11,” would have been honest, and therefore, more acceptable.

Is it a collosal blunder? Everybody will know in two week’s time, or maybe not. If Johnson wrecks, or has a mechanical failure before the checkers fly in Homestead nobody will ever know whether or not the #24 crew could have helped him win the championship. However, if, on the final stop at Phoenix, they get him out with the lead and Denny’s crew is 5th or worse (that would put Johnson back in front of the chase), it will look like a brilliant move.

Besides, the 48’s streak has to end some time, and if it ends this year, the 48 fanboys and media will have endless amount of material to debate over whether or not it was Texas or just Toyota’s inevitability that caused the 48 to stumble.

11/10/2010 08:26 AM

The FELON has reeked his poisoned soul into his teams! Win at ALL cost!! No room for soul, morality, sportsmanship! Just plain greed….last time it put him in prison, this time his mindless fans probably will cheer him! No wonder he has a “bodyguard” around!! uhhhh personal assistant.

11/10/2010 08:27 AM

It’s sad how this “sport” has degenerated. Guys used to race their guts out for bragging rights and a $5,000 purse. Now, everything is sacrificed and compromised – teams, relationships, people – to win and keep their $20 million sponsors happy. I’m sure Hendrick looked at how hard it was to get a sponsor for Jeff Gordon and he freaked out. His “do ANYTHING to get the 48 a championship” mentality sucks.

NASCAR wants to talk about parity (which is BS), making the sport more affordable for smaller teams, and creating a car that helps even the playing field. Nothing they’ve done has worked, because in the end, the big teams get the big sponsors and, if they don’t, God only knows what they will stoop to to compensate.

If NASCAR wants to be like stick and ball sports, why not create a ‘salary cap’, so to speak. Limit primary sponsorship contracts to $10 million, associates to $3 million. That would limit the resources of Hendrick/Stewart-Haas, Gibbs, RCR, and Roush. Maybe even help guys like RPM, Front Row, and the start and parks have a better chance at being competitive. I hate the thought of legislating “fairness” – its a ridiculous concept. But NASCAR has gone so so far down this road of money and greed, turning a sport into a business product, that I just don’t see any other way of giving back to the fans that feeling that their driver could win on any given Sunday.

11/10/2010 09:32 AM

This has all the looks of a desperation move. Watching the whole Chase, the 24 team hasn’t been stellar either. They had bad stops at Charlotte and Martinsville. The one at Martinsville put the 24 right in the gunsights of the 2. Be careful what you wish for Chad, you just might get it. Just another example of the 48 team trying to leach off the 24. As a Gordon fan watching this whole thing reminds me of the relationship between Biff and George McFly in Back to the Future. Whatever Chad wants Chad gets. If the roles were reversed, I don’t see Chad letting Steve have his crew.

Sherri T
11/10/2010 09:33 AM

I just shudder at the message the Hendrick management just sent to the 48 crew. “Despite the fact that you’ve pulled a ‘win’ out of just about every bad turn we’ve encountered, screw you because we don’t care about that today – go take a powder.”

Those guys have pulled out the impossible so many times its unreal!

Now if management’s not going to stand behind them on one bad day (and as you say, most of the issues were not necessarily of the crews doing), why should they perform like that in years to come? It won’t make a difference anyway – working their guts out doesn’t really matter…

Carl D.
11/10/2010 10:13 AM

If the #48 team ends the season without winning the championship, then yes, it was a meltdown. If they come back and win the championship in the final two races, it was absolute brilliance by a genius of a crew chief.

Has Gordon commented on this? I wonder how he feels about having his team confiscated in an attempt to secure the #48 team’s fifth championship.

Don Mei
11/10/2010 10:45 AM

I’m just curious as to how everyone would have reacted if they only swapped the front tire changer for Gordon’s guy. Any thoughts? Intelligent ones only please.

11/10/2010 11:05 AM

If Johnson’s pit crew has been that bad all year – how has it escaped the notice of every NASCAR journalist in the country? Surely someone, somewhere, sometime, trying to find a topic for their column, would have written about it.

Need One More?
11/10/2010 12:10 PM

Last time I checked winning is done on the track. Who the heck cares about the pit crew. A trained monkey, heck even Jacob, could change a tire. Why are we wasting our time talking about this?

Kevin in SoCal
11/10/2010 01:05 PM

DansMom, Jeff Gordon has used Jeff Gordon’s pit crew all year, and he hasnt won, either. Whats your point?

Need One More?, dont you know? Its “so hard to pass” on every track on the schedule, “the cars are aero-sensitive”, and “its easier to pass on pit road than on the track.” So of course the pit crew and your pit stop times are everything.

11/10/2010 02:17 PM

@ Don Mei –

A better question would be, would everyone be reacting this way if the mid-race swap was the 48 crew over to the 88 car? I’m sure the same people who are condemning HMS loudly and strongly would be saying “Its about time!”

Carl D.
11/10/2010 02:27 PM


I stumbled across this announcement a few minutes ago…

“Danica Patrick will do a fan Q&A at 3 p.m. Friday at the Budweiser Roll-Bar stage behind Turn 1”

Here’s your chance to knock back a few Buds with probably the most talented driver to ever be named Danica Patrick. Maybe she’ll even put you in a commercial if you’ve got what it takes to be a GoDaddy girl.

11/10/2010 02:36 PM

I agree. The journalist have been quiet on it but I have noticed the television commentators saying something when the stops were really bad. I predicted three months ago if the 48 loses the championship it will be because of the pit crew. I have studied them for years and they started getting worse last year. If they had the 18’s pit crew they would probably have at least three more wins. A lot of the problems even in New Hampshire this year were in the pits and that mysterious vibration the 48 was having.
Even Dale Jr. and Mark Martin have better crews. Dale Jr. once got an 11.6 four tire stop. All I ever ask is a 13.3 stop but that only happens to the 48 one time in five at best.
When Harvick changed teams I asked several of my friends, why didn’t the 48 change teams as well. If they changed at the same time, the 48 would have won a couple more races in this years Chase including the one last week. It was a long overdue move that may have been made too late in the game for the 48 but still a good move and great leadership on Knaus’s part but I do have to wonder what the 24 is thinking. He is statistically out of the Chase and is part owner of the 48, so I really don’t see how he could complain too much.

11/10/2010 03:16 PM

In Na$crap everything is based performance on the track. Only Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick do not have to perform on the track. All they need to do is sell T-shirts off the track.

11/10/2010 03:18 PM

What’s funny is through all this, the 48 car last weekend was not good enough to win the race anyway. Looks like Chad was more worried about the pit crew than trying to make the car better for the end of the race.

I also heard that Chad is so demanding on his pit crew that there are some crew members who didn’t want to be a part of the 48 team. That doesn’t surprise me at all. These guys aren’t making Chad’s money so I don’t blame them one bit for going to another team. If they are good I“m sure they will be welcomed with open arms at another team.

11/10/2010 03:34 PM

Randy Nacho, I see you’ve given yourself yet ANOTHER name, this time it’s “Need One More.” You are a truly pathetic child.

11/10/2010 04:38 PM

Taking a look at the No. 48’s Chase performances so far, aside from the 25th place result at the first race in New Hampshire –
Dover: Win
Kansas: 2nd
Fontana: 3rd
Charlotte: 3rd
Martinsville: 5th
Talladega: 7th
Texas: 9th

Vito, you’re having such a gleeful time commenting on the 48’s “meltdown” but then you point out the above statistics. Hardly a “meltdown” by anyone’s definition.

Jimmie’s reign as champion had to end sometime. Heck, it’s what all you writers have been wanting, right?

So if he finishes second, will you write the simple fact that he hasn’t finished in a position lower than 5th since he came to the top level of Nascar? Or will you make the big story his “meltdown”?

Choose now. It’s not like we don’t already know where you stand.

11/10/2010 04:59 PM

Care for a few more regurgitated cliches? The 48 crew got thrown under the bus. Then to make matters worse they were made to clean up the 24 pit box, therefore rubbing their noses in it, or is it pouring salt on the wound?

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
11/10/2010 05:28 PM

Terri –

….uh, pulling your crew after posting those finishes (and the afforementioned FOUR championships in a row) is the deffintion of melting down.

11/10/2010 07:04 PM

us old timers remember when a 20 second pit stop was fast and that was with 3 air wrenches. 18 second pit stops were rare. i remember when benny parson’s had his under 13 second pit stop award. what’s next 4 tires in 10 seconds?

11/11/2010 12:44 AM

RandyG just doesn’t get it – it’s not the ‘chase.’ It’s the fact that except for three guys jockeying for points, everyone else is free to RACE. Good racing = happy fans. Something NASCAR needs to realize as well – but they’re so stupid they, like you, would think that the interest is because of the ‘chase.’

Bill B
11/11/2010 11:27 AM

“I like how everyone hates the chase and it makes the racing stink… yet this week has seen the most comments this website has gotten all year.”

That’s a bold statement. Could you please provide proof by listing every story and the number of comments each received. Or were you just making chit-chat.

11/11/2010 11:52 AM

@DansMom- Danica Patrick couldn’t win a race with Jeff Gordon’s pit crew even if Jeff Gordon was driving for her!

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