The Chase may be a manufactured contest to try and generate additional interest in the late season races of a long NASCAR season, but one thing is for sure: the best teams in any sport will always find their way to the top of the ranks more times than they’ll finish near the bottom. Last week’s race at Chicagoland saw Denny Hamlin run out of gas late and lose a multitude of spots on the final lap while Jeff Gordon’s day was ruined by a stuck throttle. However, week two of the playoffs finds Hamlin standing in Victory Lane with a Gatorade-soaked driver suit while Gordon, sans mustache, was the third driver to cross the finish line. The reason the 12 teams who made the Chase are in contention for the title is because they were the 12 best teams in the first 26 races of the season.
Racing is different from stick and ball sports because you battle all of the teams in the sport every week. There isn’t a one-on-one battle or a head-to-head contest that is settled between two contenders. Every team on the track is trying to beat every other team on the track; winning requires a driver to beat the other 42 cars to the checkered flag. The common factor for every team on the track is the car. The teams that figure out something that makes their car faster will generally be fast for some time–until the other teams figure it out. That advantage will generally carry through to the end of the season and is another reason that teams make the Chase and then run up front in the Chase races.
On top of the mechanics of the cars there is also the chemistry factor. Teams, and primarily drivers and crew chiefs, are balances between egos, desire, and ability. When egos get in the way or desire wanes, teams fall off and their performance struggles. The fortunes of the No. 99 team have been a vivid example of that this season. Believe in it or not, the runner-up jinx is real–and it bit Carl Edwards and his team early this season. Eventually, the pressure became too much and the team was switched up. Bob Osborne moved off of the box due to health concerns and Chad Norris took over the head wrench duties. The fortunes for the team have not returned to their 2011 levels as they have not scored a top 5 since the fifth race of the season and haven’t notched a top 15 since Michigan a month and a half ago.
There is no doubt that driver talent is a major factor in team success, but the entire package, from the guy who runs to get the gas cans filled, all of the way to the crew chief, has an impact on the abilities of the team. Any weak link in the entire chain can have a cascading effect on the team and their efforts. The teams on top of the standings have put themselves in that position because the parts are all functioning together and, most importantly, when a part has a problem the rest of the machine will pick up for that part to keep the team in contention.
Race teams are similar to the herd of buffalo. The entire herd is only as fast as the slowest animal. If there is a member of the team that is slowing down the progress of the team, it will slow down everything about the team. The team doesn’t need to be loaded with the fastest at every position, it simply has to be staffed with a group that works efficiently and quickly together. Many times, the best pit stops are not ripped off by the fastest pit crews, but by the pit crew that gets the stop done in the most efficient fashion. Many times, the fastest crews will be the ones that have the most mistakes from time to time. The missed lug nut, the loose wheel, the stumble on an air hose all will affect a team that rushes more than a team that is efficient.
As the Chase rolls on into the final eight races of the season, The cream will continue to rise to the top and the drivers and teams that work the best together will more than likely be the ones battling it out when the number of races dwindles down to the last one or two. Right now, the only two drivers who are in the top five that would also be in the top five if the points had not been reset are Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Greg Biffle would still be leading but is now ninth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be second but is now seventh. Matt Kenseth would be fourth and is now eleventh. When the checkered flag falls at Homestead, the odds are that most of the teams who would be in the top five without the point reset will probably be in the top five.
Fans who listened to the race on Sunday had a very good glimpse into the difference between a team with a chance to win the title and a team who is out of it. As Kyle Busch’s motor was going south, his crew chief, Dave Rogers, was trying to diagnose the problem and asked Busch about his gauges. Busch responded with, “the gauges look fine. If I knew there was a problem I’d have told you; I’m not stupid.” Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were discussing fuel strategy and the tactics that they were utilizing. Johnson was asking about being more aggressive and Knaus counseled him that they were going to stay conservative to make sure they were ready to make a run at the end. Johnson never questioned it and just did what his crew chief instructed. After the race, Brad Keselowski was asked about a call that Paul Wolfe, his crew chief, had made. Without blinking, Keselowski said he trusts Wolfe implicitly and does whatever his crew chief says. Although there is obviously more to it than just words, these small glimpses into the psyches of drivers on the way up and on the way down helps you realize why some teams succeed and some fail.
Whether you come up with a point system that changes week-to-week, remains the same year long, or falls somewhere in-between, the teams that are strongest and can not only win but make the best out of bad days are the teams that will be there at the end. The No. 48 team has been through this battle every year that it has been held and they know what it takes to take home the shiny trophy and the big check. Listening to Johnson sound upset because he lost a point for leading the most laps gives you an idea of where that team is, and it does not bode well for the rest of the competitors.