NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick Crew Swaps Were the Right Move

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.

Really?

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.

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 five 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 five. 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.

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