Sometimes we tend to forget that when it comes to success in racing, a fast car and a savvy driver don’t always generate it.
The odds for victory improve greatly when you have both – obviously. But given that racing is a team sport that involves a lot of people performing many different tasks, car and driver alone guarantee nothing.
We all know how pit stops, both good and bad, can make a difference in the outcome of any event.
Pit stops are not just about crewmember speed and skill. They are also about driver conduct on pit road – speeding or missing a stall can be ruinous – and communication.
The most essential communication is, of course, between driver and crew chief. If there is any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what is required during a stop, it can make all the difference in the outcome.
Ask Denny Hamlin. Or his crew chief Darian Grubb.
Hamlin was enjoying a Sunday drive in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup event at New Hampshire. In his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the Virginian was steamrolling the competition.
Which, in fact, was not entirely unexpected. Hamlin qualified third, two positions behind pole winner and teammate Kyle Busch, and was fastest in final practice.
By lap 234, Hamlin had led 150 laps, more than any other driver. But then the race’s third and final caution period began after David Reutimann suffered a blown engine.
Hamlin led the parade down pit road in what was assumed to be a routine stop. But, unlike so many other competitors who underwent a two-tire change, the Gibbs team put four on its Toyota.
As a result Hamlin was no longer the leader when he returned to the track. He was in 14th place that was, obviously, a huge loss of track position.
It was quickly learned that a four-tire change was never intended. Hamlin said via radio he needed only “tires.” From that Grubb interpreted his driver wanted four, which, in his defense, is nearly always what drivers want when they say, “tires.”
Grubb said, indeed, that was the case. He added that once teams learned, via radio scanning, what was happening in the Hamlin pits, they opted for two-tire changes.
Poised for the restart Hamlin wanted to know what happened. Grubb told him. Hamlin sighed. Grubb fell on the sword and accepted the blame. “My bad,” he said.
He also encouraged his driver to give it all he had until the finish. Other than a lack of time there was no reason Hamlin couldn’t rally. His car had been the model of perfection all day.
In the space of 20 laps Hamlin moved from 14thto sixth. He was in fifth five laps later and then, after five more laps, he settled into fourth place.
On lap 273, Hamlin was second, 2.9 seconds behind leader Kasey Kahne with 28 laps to go.
When Hamlin closed to within a second of Kahne with five laps remaining it seemed he had a real chance.
But it went away with just two laps to go when the hard-charging Hamlin slid high in the fourth turn.
For Hamlin a potentially great day was spoiled by a small miscommunication.
Of which he was acutely aware.
“It was just a miscommunication,” Hamlin said. “I said I needed tires and that was taken to mean I needed four of them.
“It was just a little miscommunication that turned into a second-place finish. You never know what could have happened on that last restart if we were taking two tires.
The 5 (Kahne) still may have been better, you never know.”
Fact is Hamlin shouldn’t have become the pursuer. But he made as much of it as he possibly could.
You try to be as optimistic as possible, but you know in your head that the stop was a death sentence, basically, for us,” Hamlin said. “I honestly didn’t think that we would get back to where we did.
“Kasey stretched out so far on that lead when we were about 10th. I was thinking top-five and then I was thinking I could get to the top three and then we made some good ground up there at the end.
“But I needed four or five more laps. I just needed to get within striking distance because I was going to rough him up.”
***** While a victory at New Hampshire would have certainly cemented Hamlin’s place in the Chase, with two wins and a fifth-place standing in points, it seems he doesn’t need it.
But for Kahne, his second win of the season may propel him into the “playoff.” He is 12th in points, 66 out of the top 10, but two wins put him No. 1 among the “wildcard” challengers.
“The first win with Hendrick Motorsports (at Charlotte) was pretty cool,” Kahne said. “The second one is really special to be a part of, especially as good as the cars are each and every weekend. “To be able to win two races now, and have a shot at the Chase – we’re still definitely not in it, but we have a better shot now than we did.”
Kahne admitted that he gained the most favorable track position following Hamlin’s pit miscue. But he added that he felt confident he could hold it – even as Hamlin made his assault during the closing laps.
“I was definitely focused on the lapped cars I was going by and how I could clear them quick,” Kahne said. “But I lost a ton of forward drive. I was getting pretty loose and Denny was coming on four tires.
“So I was paying attention to where he was, but I felt pretty good about the lead we had.”
Busch ranks No. 2 among “wildcard” contenders. He’s 13th in points with one victory. He’s one position ahead of Joey Logano and two ahead of Ryan Newman, the only other drivers outside the top 10 with at least one victory.
Busch, incidentally, ran strong at New Hampshire as he led 72 laps. But when he pitted for the final time on lap 232, he overshot his pits. The error cost him time and track position.
He fell out of second place and wound up 16th at race’s end.
With seven races remaining before the Chase begins following the conclusion of the Richmond race on Sept. 8, it appears the drivers who rank among the top 10 should make the Chase – some of them easily.
But outside the top 10, a couple of competitors face formidable challenges.
Carl Edwards, at No.11, is 46 points out of the top 10 with no victories. It seems certain now he has to win.
For four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 17th in points without a victory, the prospects for making the Chase continue to dwindle.
He has missed the “playoff” only once in his career and to avoid a second occurrence, at the least he has to win twice – certainly a daunting task.