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Absence makes team work harder

When a Nextel Cup crew chief sits out, there's always a plan to ensure the car runs smoothly.

By KELLIE DIXON
Published May 27, 2007


CONCORD, N.C. - Around the No. 8 hauler and garage, it was like Tony Eury Jr. wasn't serving a six-race suspension. It was like the crew chief was right there at Lowe's Motor Speedway, discussing adjustments and cracking jokes with his crew before Thursday's qualifying.

Only, the communication wasn't face to face.

"I don't think the phone ever got hung up, to be honest with you, " Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday. "We were constantly in conversation with Tony Jr. throughout the practice trying to feed him as much information as possible."

The parties swapped notes, car chief Tony Gibson filled in for Eury, and Earnhardt qualified fourth - his best of the season - for tonight's Coca-Cola 600.

There's an obvious comfort level drivers have with their crew chiefs. After all, this is the guy the driver mostly chats with while racing hundreds of miles. This is the guy who is steady under pressure even while filling a variety of roles - team manager, psychologist, mechanic and so on. But No. 17 crew chief Robbie Reiser argues, and his driver Matt Kenseth has proven, having the original crew chief there on race day isn't entirely necessary.

"Everyone makes a bigger deal out of it than what it really is, " Reiser said. "To be honest with you, one man doesn't make a difference in these race teams anymore. ... To put this all on one person's shoulders and say they're going to make it or break it, that's not right. They call it a team for a reason."

Kenseth won in February at California while Reiser was serving a four-race suspension. Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 in 2006 while Chad Knaus was serving a suspension.

A sense of calm is highly unlikely for the crew chief watching the race from his couch, but he has to trust that he has managed his crew well enough to run the show on its own.

"If he's done his job and trained his employees, he doesn't need to be there, " said Steve Letarte, crew chief for points leader Jeff Gordon. "I think you can set up a very good game plan - if it's loose, X, Y and Z will fix it. If it's tight, X, Y and Z will fix it. The difference is what you have in your brain and what you jot down for notes."

A good crew chief, like any good coach, shares the game plan clearly with the members of the team. His absence forces the team to grow because individual players are shuffled into different roles and the level of responsibility is greater. The driver has to rely upon a familiar yet different voice for direction, reassurance or comic relief. The crew has to instantly obey the interim crew chief the way it would the original.

And all that is easy to do when things are going right. But when the adjustments aren't working or there's miscommunication, the absence of the original crew chief is a little more noticeable. That's when depth is the most crucial. Ron Malec, car chief with Johnson's No. 48 car, noticed that when Knaus was suspended last season.

"We've been doing this so long we have enough depth on our team that we can sustain a good finish, " said Malec, who has worked with the No. 48 for six years. "We can run well without him because that's the way he's trained us, and we've learned over the years."

Darian Grubb, then Johnson's lead engineer, filled in for Knaus. The duo talked daily, like Eury is doing with Gibson. But once the race started, Grubb and the team members were on their own. The view from the television is too limited for a crew chief to adequately assemble his team or make calls on adjustments.

"With the pace of the race, you can't call it from home, " said Grubb, now the crew chief for Casey Mears.

So the chats before race day are crucial.

"We're in communication in the morning and in night, " Gibson said. "We have a game plan. We want to do certain things, and we'll stick with that game plan. That's the way we're going to handle it."

It will be like Eury was there all along, though maybe he didn't even need to be.

Fast Facts:

 

Coca-Cola 600

5:30 p.m., Lowe's Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C.

TV: Ch. 13.

Forecast: 88 degrees, 10 percent chance for rain, wind 9 mph.

More coverage, 7C

. NEXTEL CUP

Points standings

Through 11 of 36 races. The top 12 after 26 races make the Chase for the Championship:

Driver Pts. Bk.

1. Jeff Gordon 1, 881 -

2. J. Johnson 1, 650 231

3. Matt Kenseth 1, 582 299

4. Denny Hamlin 1, 539 342

5. Jeff Burton 1, 486 395

6. Tony Stewart 1, 375 506

7. Kurt Busch 1, 325 556

8. Kevin Harvick 1, 315 566

9. Clint Bowyer 1, 302 579

10. Carl Edwards 1, 291 590

11. Kyle Busch 1, 281 600

12. J. McMurray 1, 214 667