Second-place finish provides ample motivation for Edwards' crew chief
Fireworks brightened the South Florida sky last November, signaling an end but also a beginning. NASCAR crowned its Sprint Cup champion that night, but it also toasted a season of competition featuring the closest race for the championship in NASCAR history.
Tony Stewart celebrated his come-from-behind title amid the fireworks and flashes. Carl Edwards faced questions about losing the crown by a tiebreaker. Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief, stood ashen and alone on pit road.
Osborne looked toward the velvet sky. He appeared in a haze, his headphones wrapped around his neck and his face blank.
One more position gained in a season that spanned 14,236 miles or one different pit call among the hundreds he made all season and it would have been Edwards and Osborne wearing goofy grins as champions as rain started to fall that night.
Instead, rain pelted Osborne, underscoring the disappointment.
"That's not something that I'll always be over or ever be over," Osborne said of losing the title by a tiebreaker. "I don't want it to be.
"I want to use that situation to my advantage during this season when I do start to get tired. If it's 10 o'clock and I don't have the answer I want for the car the next day, I want to be able to say, 'Listen, I've got to put in a little bit extra effort here to get the answer that I need so I can be that much further ahead.'"
Hours after losing the championship, Osborne was back at work. As David Ragan walked through the race shop around 6:30 a.m. the day after the Homestead race, he saw a hood up on a car and Osborne leaning over inspecting the interior.
"Man, he's working already," Ragan said to himself.
Drew Blickensderfer wasn't surprised. Blickensderfer, formerly Ragan's crew chief, saw Osborne's drive when they worked together at Roush Fenway Racing.
"One thing I learned from him is that you're always looking forward to next week because you can't fix what happened behind you," said Blickensderfer, now Jeff Burton's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing.
No matter how far one looks ahead, the disappointment of what was lost remains. Steve Letarte can relate.
Letarte was Jeff Gordon's crew chief in 2007 when Gordon battled teammate Jimmie Johnson for the crown. Despite an average finish of 5.1 in the Chase, Gordon lost the title to Johnson by 77 points. The championship all but ended when Johnson won the season's next-to-last race at Phoenix. Gordon finished 10th that day, leaving him so far behind that he proclaimed the title race "over."
"I would say the longest day of my entire career was the walk from the pit box at Phoenix," said Letarte, now Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief. "It hasn't softened one bit to this day.
"I was one race away from winning. My team was one race from winning."
Looking back to last year can be tricky for Osborne and his team. They must learn from what happened but be careful not to second-guess what they did in a season that saw Edwards score more top-five (19) and top-10 finishes (26) than any other driver.
During a team meeting with the drivers and crew chiefs after the season, car owner Jack Roush asked Osborne and Edwards what they could have done differently to win the title.
Edwards said that without hesitation, Osborne told Roush: "If I had to run it over again, I would do the exact same thing. We did the right things and we did the best we could, and if we do that every time we will be fine."
Osborne likely is right. Stewart's charge -- winning half of the 10 Chase races -- was unprecedented. He won even though crew chief Darian Grubb was told during the Chase he would not be back with the team after the season. Such conflict typically tears a team apart.
"I'm not taking anything away from Bob or Carl Edwards or from Darian or anybody," Cup crew chief Todd Berrier said. "When you go back and look, it was sheer determination and heart to get Tony Stewart where he needed to be. I hadn't seen anything like that since 2000 [and Dale Earnhardt].''
Maybe so, but that's little consolation to Roush, who's looking to win his third Cup title. He said that the organization must fine-tune its philosophy this year.
"We got out-risked," Roush said. "We're going to have to accept some more risk and try to get from it some additional points and some additional [wins]. We were a bit too conservative last year [and] that ended up being my fault more than anybody else's."
Maybe more risks would have helped last season. Then again, they might have prevented Edwards from even having a chance to win the title.
One of those races that is easy to look back on and wonder about is the Southern 500 -- a race Edwards seemed set to win yet finished second.
Edwards led when the caution came out 12 laps from the finish. He pitted. Three drivers did not, including Regan Smith, who moved into the lead. Edwards restarted fourth and quickly moved to second before an accident brought out another caution, creating a green-white-checkered finish. Smith got a better restart and went on to win. Had Edwards won, he would have earned three bonus points for the Chase and taken the title over Stewart.
In retrospect, it's easy to say that Osborne should not have called Edwards to pit road at the end.
"You ask any of the crew chiefs down pit road, talking about that particular instance, I don't think any of them would have made a different decision just based on the history of that racetrack and how that track races," Osborne said. "We've touched upon that particular race in the offseason. Had that gone completely green for the last 15 laps, we would have won that race. But the fact that the caution came out again and took a majority of that run, it shortened our window and it bit us."
The biggest challenge for Osborne, though, might be fighting history. Since 2002, the series runner-up has failed to finish as high in the points the following year. Edwards finished second with Osborne in 2008 but they struggled the next season -- along with all the Roush Fenway teams -- and finished 11th in the points.
So, how to avoid a similar drop-off this season?
"I think the big thing is to make sure you realize how hard it was to finish second," Osborne said. "A lot of guys have a great season like that and say, 'Oh that was easy, we're just going to do a little bit harder and we'll be fine.' It wasn't easy to finish second. It was a lot of hard work.
"It's something we'll discuss going into the early stages of the season. All of us as a group will remind ourselves that if we want to stay competitive we've got to keep working as hard if not harder."
It's easy to say that and difficult to achieve.
"We're just going to have to figure out how to squeeze a little bit more out of the race car, how to squeeze a little bit more time off the pit stops and how to squeeze a little bit better setup out of the race car,'' Osborne said.
"I'm just going to try to do my duties a little bit better.''