Tactical racing, led by crew chiefs, a recurring theme in the Chase
CONCORD, N.C. -- It's easy to miss the essence of this Chase with so much talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s concussions, Denny Hamlin's Twitter guarantee and Tony Stewart's playful grab of DeLana Harvick's tush.
The action on the track can't compare to those subjects for some fans, but they're overlooking the subtleties that make this title Chase one of the most intriguing.
While fuel-mileage races are akin to 2-1 baseball games where strategy, not action, dominates, it doesn't make them any less meaningful. This Chase has become a match of wits among crew chiefs Paul Wolfe (with driver Brad Keselowski), Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) and Darian Grubb (Denny Hamlin).
But this time Brian Pattie, crew chief for Clint Bowyer, got into the action Saturday night with a fuel gamble that helped Bowyer win at Charlotte Motor Speedway and move up to fourth in the standings behind Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin. What worked for Bowyer didn't work this time for Keselowski and Wolfe.
Keselowski and Wolfe are impacting the Chase, and the sport as a whole, with their risky pit calls. Their ploy worked last month at Chicagoland Speedway when Keselowski won, but it backfired Saturday when Keselowski ran out of fuel before his final pit stop while leading.
Unlike some drivers who would have pouted after an 11th-place finish that sliced their points lead, Keselowski had no ill words afterward. Wolfe also didn't back down from his strategy.
"It's important to be aggressive because that's what got us here and that's what is going to get us a championship," Wolfe said, standing near Keselowski's car in the garage as crew members swept over it. "It wouldn't be smart for us to change that now as we get down to the championship battle."
When Wolfe's plan didn't go as expected Saturday, Ray Evernham, who led Jeff Gordon to three championships as his crew chief in the 1990s, wasn't surprised at how calm Keselowski and Wolfe were after the race.
"When you're gambling like they're gambling, you're not going to win every one, but if you win more than your share, you're going to go home with the chips," said Evernham, now an analyst for ABC/ESPN.
Last season's championship essentially came down to a pit call at Homestead: Grubb told Stewart to stretch his fuel, while Edwards pitted during the final caution. The move helped Stewart win the race and claim that title. Drivers and crew chiefs all noticed, hence the reoccurring theme of technical racing.
"I think you're seeing kind of a new age of racing," said Evernham "The cars are so good and so durable, the tires are so good, the friggin' drivers are so good that it's forcing the crew chiefs to be really aggressive. I'm starting to see Chad Knaus be more aggressive with some of his calls because they don't have as big a margin as they used to have. I think Darian Grubb has always been a little bit aggressive on calls. "
Crew chief decisions are also playing a greater role in this Chase due to fewer cautions than in the past few years. The more cautions, the less control a crew chief has in dictating the race because cautions allow everybody to reset.
But the dearth of yellow flags this season -- and in this Chase -- has limited those reset opportunities. Halfway through the Chase there have been 23 cautions; only 107 laps (7.2 percent of all laps run in the Chase) have been under caution. Last year's Chase featured 81 cautions in the 10 races with 12.4 percent of all laps run under caution. The numbers are similar for the Chase in 2010 and '09.
With more green-flag pit stops, some crew chiefs are taking bigger chances. At Chicago Wolfe ordered a four-tire pit stop for Keselowski during the race's first caution. While that cost Keselowski track position, dropping him from third to ninth, it put him on a different tire strategy than most of the field. He moved to fifth by the next caution and took two tires during that stop to take the lead while most of the field changed four tires.
Keselowski stayed at or near the front the final 160 laps to open the Chase with the victory. He won at Dover by managing fuel while Kyle Busch, who led most of the race, and Hamlin each relinquished the lead in the final 12 laps due to fuel.
Using a different strategy than their competitors has helped Keselowski and Wolfe win eight of the last 55 races, dating back to Kansas in June 2011 when Keselowski won with a fuel gamble.
"They've taught a lot of people in the garage that you've got to be smarter in a lot more areas," Hamlin said of Wolfe and Keselowski.
The only person who has won more often than Keselowski and Wolfe during that time is Grubb. He has 10 victories -- five with Stewart en route to last year's title and five with Hamlin this season.
Hamlin concedes he wouldn't have finished second to Bowyer had it not been for Grubb's "gutsy call" with 110 laps left. Keselowski led, Hamlin was second and Johnson fifth when the caution came out for debris just after a cycle of green-flag pit stops had been completed.
Keselowski didn't pit. Hamlin and Johnson did. Still, they needed to save fuel so they would need only one more stop to make it to the end. Hamlin restarted ninth, admitting he was "kind of frustrated" with losing the track position, and Johnson 11th.
"Obviously, [Grubb] knew what he was doing and we saved the fuel that we needed," Hamlin said, after gaining eight points on Keselowski.
A third-place finish provided uplift to Johnson, who often has struggled in fuel-mileage races
"We're still learning," said Johnson, who gained seven points on Keselowski. "We don't have the confidence just yet that we see (Keselowski's team) show in some situations ... but we finished two fuel-mileage races and stretched it much further than we have in years past. We're becoming a stronger race team in that department."
That could only add to the drama of the season's final five races.
"If you want to be competitive in this sport," Knaus said, "you've got to make aggressive calls."