Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Likely Decided Several Months Ago

In yesterday’s installment of Voice of Vito, I wrote how history was about to repeat itself from 2005, with Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team uncharacteristically succumbing to pressure, and ditching their race-day pit crew which have been such a big part of the four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cups the team has won.

Looking back five years to the last time Jimmie Johnson and Knaus have been this far behind (33 points) with two races to go may serve as foreshadowing of what may come during the final pair of races in Phoenix and Homestead, you don’t have to look that far back to see that the championship was likely decided at Texas and Phoenix for 2010.

That is, Texas and Phoenix this past April.

Denny Hamlin had just returned from ACL surgery following a Monday win at Martinsville and gingerly slid through the window of his No. 11 FedEx Camry. Johnson finished third that day, while Hamlin and his March of Dimes Toyota, soldiered on to a 30th-place finish. After getting collected by Kurt Busch early in the going and damaging his car, he very easily could have slid out and turned the driving duties over to Casey Mears, who was waiting atop the war wagon in relief. However, Hamlin felt he owed it to his team to stay in the car and see it through to the end. Let’s face it – this isn’t 1975, and driver swaps mid-race usually ensure you will finish in the mid 20s, two laps down.

While the points may have reset in September, that 30th-place run did more for the JGR team that potentially any of the eight wins they have scored this season. While nobody would ever accuse Hamlin of being a slacker, you’d be hard pressed to consider him one of the most passionate drivers on the circuit.

Some might say that driving with a bum wheel might not register as high on the macho meter as Richard Petty driving with half a stomach and broken neck, Ricky Rudd with his eyes tapped open or Davey Allison with his hand Velcro-ed to the shifter. Regardless, Hamlin’s dedication to his team rallied the No. 11 crew, and helped forge one of the strongest bonds between driver and team during what is probably the most cynical season in NASCAR.

The only other group that seemed to act as one more than this driver/crew chief/team combo is, well… was the No. 48 bunch.

Those three hours in the desert helped set the stage for the next Monday triumph at Texas. Hamlin qualified way back in 29th, and didn’t lead until the final 12 laps, but they were the dozen that would decide the race. As he crossed the finish line just ahead of a rapidly closing Johnson, Hamlin not only won his third race of the season, but may have also captured the championship story this year in those final few laps. A gutsy call to stay out on older tires after a late-race caution was just enough to give Hamlin the win, while Johnson was banging doors and trading paint with teammate Jeff Gordon.

Who would’ve thought seven months later they’d be trading pit crews?

The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is not exactly in the books just yet. There are two more races to run, and tracks that Kevin Harvick as well as Johnson have a bit of history at – history as in wins, top fives and the opportunity to pick up points on each other regardless if the others post a fifth-place finish in each event.

That being said, the way things have unfolded during the 2010 season with the two current challengers, I believe the die has been cast for how this title will decide itself. The No. 29 team set the tone at Martinsville when they exchanged pit crews with Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 bunch. Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports followed suit this week, swapping pit crew with their No. 24 team shop mates.

No such shenanigans needed in the No. 11 camp however. The team has stuck by their driver and the driver has had his team’s back, slipping in a pointed comment here and there this week following the announcing by Knaus and company regarding the changes made to the core of the crew.

You can make all of the analogies to stick-and-ball sports and what it means to be part of a “team” to compete at a professional level and contend for championships, but the changes made this late in the game by the No. 29 and 48 camps just don’t sit wall with me. They will likely end up highlighting the effort and accomplishment of the No. 11 team should they close the deal in two weeks at Homestead.

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