Chase puts contending crew chiefs on center stage

10/5/2007 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Steve Letarte didn't appear to have a care in the world as he sat on top of a blue cooler outside the No. 24 hauler of Jeff Gordon late Thursday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.

"Just hanging out," he said with a big smile.

Letarte won't be quite so laid back Sunday when he sits on top of Gordon's pit box at this 2.66-mile track, the fourth stop in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

There will be moments of anxiety, moments when he will second-guess routine calls such as whether to take two or four tires, moments when he will sweat over whether to leave his driver out for track position during caution.

It's that way for most of the 12 crew chiefs competing for the championship.

In a way, they are under more pressure than the men behind the wheel because they are responsible for so much more.

While the driver is playing golf or hanging out at the lake early in the week, they are at the shop making sure this week's car and cars for the coming weeks are properly prepared.

While the driver is asleep in his motorcoach on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, they are up with the sun overseeing countless NASCAR inspections and last-minute setup changes.

They had to arrive at Talladega on Thursday morning, a half-day earlier than usual, to get through a lengthier-than-normal inspection because it is the first for the Car of Tomorrow on a restrictor-plate track.

"I absolutely feel the pressure of the Chase," said Letarte, whose driver is six points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in this 10-race playoff. "Ten weeks is definitely longer than everybody wants it to be, but it can be very, very short, too, if you make a big mistake.

"There's absolutely more pressure."

Gil Martin, the crew chief for Chase rookie Clint Bowyer, agreed.

"I know for the 07 team, we got home at 4 in the morning on Monday and we were right back in the shop at 8," said Martin, whose driver is in third place, 14 points out of the lead. "Not only do you have to demand that the guys work on very little sleep, but you've got to keep the people in check.

"How you run makes that an easier job, but we have a lot going on, so there is no time to get rid of any of the pressure. It stays with us from Sunday to Sunday."

Such dedication doesn't go unnoticed by the drivers.

"Everybody starts paying attention to every move they make and every decision they make, from tightening shocks to pit calls, turning the steering wheel, in and off of pit road, whatever it may be," Johnson said.

"The intensity is just getting higher and higher as it goes on. You guys can see it and sense it."

Not that any of the Chase crew chiefs would trade places with those outside the top 12. The opportunity to win a championship is what they've worked for their entire careers.

And they wouldn't be in this position if they couldn't handle pressure.

"It's what you signed up for," Letarte said. "I hope we go into Homestead [the final race of the Chase] with nine guys tied for the points. I love it. This is why I race."

Long hours
Robbie Reiser, the crew chief for 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, landed in Charlotte, N.C., at 1:30 a.m. Monday.

By 4:50 a.m., he was in his office at Roush Fenway Racing, getting his week in order. By lunchtime, the wrecked car Kenseth drove last Sunday at Kansas Speedway was back at the shop to be torn down so parts could be used for other events.

Reiser didn't go home to see his family until 6 p.m.

"The pressure is there," he said. "We're responsible for all the team stuff and car performance and everything that goes with it. We have to deal with it every day of the week."

Letarte did his best to give employees days, and often weekends, off during the first 26 races. He often didn't bring his normal crew to the track to make sure that happened.

"We let a lot of guys rotate in and out of the system," he said. "But these last 10, this shop is built on winning championships. We have to force them in the shop to take a day off. They want to win more than anything in the world."

While the days often are just as long during the regular season, the stress level isn't nearly as high. If you make a mistake in Week 10, there are 16 races to make it up.

If you make a mistake in Week 1 of the Chase, you could be too far behind to fully recover.

Reiser understands. Kenseth is 11th in the standings, 219 points behind Johnson after consecutive 35th-place finishes at Dover and Kansas. At Dover, Kenseth led a race-high 192 laps and was poised to make a huge advance in the standings before his engine blew late.

They were prepared for a solid finish at Kansas until a late 10-car melee.

"We can't make mistakes," Reiser said. "We're so far back here that if we have any idea of getting back in it, we've got to be picture perfect. There's lot of pressure to get out of here with a top-five finish to get ourselves back in here.

"If we don't get a top-five finish the next week or so, we're not going to be in it anyway."

In a way, the rough start has lessened the pressure on Reiser and his team. He felt more pressure leaving the fifth race at Charlotte a year ago with a 36-point lead over Kevin Harvick than he does now.

"We were in the thick of the points, and if we had just an ounce of car performance, we would have won the thing," Reiser said. "The only reason we let the 48 back in there was because our cars weren't running.

"This year our cars were running well enough to have top-fives in every one of the first three Chase races. I'm more excited about what we've got going right now because we're able to race."

Stress relief
Martin took his team go-kart racing last weekend at Kansas City. A party at a friend's house is scheduled for Friday night in Talladega. There might be some bowling in the weeks to come.

"We try to schedule some things that will relieve some of the pressure," he said.

Martin and Bowyer have handled the pressure well so far. The team won the Chase opener at New Hampshire International Speedway, was 12th after qualifying next to last at Dover and second at Kansas.

But Martin feels the pressure, especially on Sundays, when every decision he makes could determine whether Bowyer remains in the hunt.

"It's like playing a game of chess on everything we do," he said. "You have to really think about every decision made on the pit box more closely than you do the first 26 races."

Chad Knaus, who won the title a year ago with Johnson, tries to treat these races no differently than the others, even though he knows they're not the same. He tries to make decisions the same way he did during the regular season.

"You always go with your gut," he said. "If you don't go with your gut, you won't be successful. First instinct, on anybody's part, whether it's a football coach, race car driver, if you go with your instinct and gut, you're going to be more successful than if you second-guess yourself."

But Knaus understands Martin's concerns. He had the same ones in the inaugural Chase in 2004, when Johnson lost the championship by eight points to Kurt Busch.

"I felt the pressure more then because that was the first year we had a chance to really win the championship," Knaus said. "I'm a lot calmer this year than what I've been before.

"The whole team is. They've had to handle this pressure for years. That may be part of the reason why we handle things better than most, because we've been in this position for six years. We've never felt anything but this pressure."

Talladega pressure
"Got a second?" Todd Berrier was asked as he scrambled to get Harvick's car ready for inspection.

"Can't you see I'm working?" he replied.

The pressures crew chiefs feel in the Chase are magnified at Talladega. Much is out of their control because, unlike with past cars, there's little that can be done to the Car of Tomorrow to improve the aerodynamics.

What little adjustments that could be made through the rear wing were taken away when NASCAR mandated flat-end plates and the height of the wicker instead of allowing teams to choose.

And a whole different set of pressures could arise by Saturday's qualifying, because many expect NASCAR to shrink the size of the hole in the restrictor plate to slow the cars.

I absolutely feel the pressure of the Chase. Ten weeks is definitely longer than everybody wants it to be, but it can be very, very short, too, if you make a big mistake. There's absolutely more pressure.

-- Steve Letarte

That could mean changing the gear ratio and making other adjustments to the engine to guarantee maximum performance.

"We're having to prepare for a lot of unknowns, which basically means preparing for a couple of different races," Martin said. "We had to do a lot of extra work to prepare for any scenario."

As stressful as that might seem at the time, it reduces stress on the weekend.

"A lot of stress comes from not being prepared and a lot of the unknown," Martin said. "We've been prepared at least three or four days in advance of every race this year.

"That has kept a lot of the pressure off of me and the guys. When you get guys to work 10 hours of really smart work instead of 12 to 14 hours ... those extra two hours can really add up, and then at the end of the week, that puts them under extra pressure at that point."

But in this race, the unknowns are so great that there can't help but be added pressure.

"Watching what was going on in testing, they're definitely going to be a lot more aggressive in the draft because the cars are so much closer together," Reiser said. "Instead of seeing a driver bump draft one car, you're probably going to see four or five cars bump drafting together.

"That's going to make it a lot more exciting, a lot more dangerous, and the risks are going to be higher. Everybody is going to be uneasy."

Martin laughed. He already is uneasy.

"With these cars, we'll have to prepare for damage we've never sustained before on how we're going to fix them and get back up to speed if we do get into a situation," he said. "There are scenarios we're preparing for that we never have had to do yet."

Chase pressure
Letarte already has his scanner tuned into the other 11 teams in the Chase.

"I don't know if I try to outsmart them, but I do focus in on them," he said. "I listen only to the Chase drivers. I don't care about anybody else."

Letarte makes most of his pit decisions based on where those closest in the Chase are to his team. He figures if Gordon finishes ahead of them, his team can't help but win the title.

"If they're getting aggressive, it kind of forces your hand," he said. "I'd be lying if I said when [Kenseth] and [Johnson] pitted at Kansas and we ran into our fuel window that I wasn't nervous for two laps.

"I was, 'Man, they're going to get on the track. They're going to be picking up time.' Absolutely, the 12 drivers you race in the Chase get your attention more. I kind of erase the other 31 out there. They don't really matter to me."

That's not entirely true. Gordon openly expressed concern that former Indy 500 champion Jacques Villeneuve was cleared to make his Cup debut at Talladega, arguing his inexperience could put drivers competing for a title in jeopardy.

A year ago, non-Chase driver Tony Stewart put Chase contender Kasey Kahne in a big hole when he wrecked him at Dover.

Knaus tries not to worry about things out of his control.

"I don't monitor other teams," he said. "We run our race. I know if we finish in the top five, the top 10, we're going to be OK. Now, if we go to Homestead and we have three cars we're racing within a few points, obviously I'll be more cognizant of them."

But Knaus is aware of how other teams can affect his championship hopes, particularly at Talladega, where Johnson has yet to finish an October race in five attempts.

"Never," Knaus said. "Never. We've wrecked four out of five times and lost an engine the other. One time Mark Martin wrecked us on the pace lap. We all know. We don't follow stats, but we know our own record. We all come in here with our fingers crossed."

Reiser has everything crossed.

"Now, with the predicament we're in, we've got to basically go out and win some races and get back in this thing," he said. "I probably won't pay that close attention [to anybody else] the next couple of races, because if we have more bad luck like we have, we'll basically be out of this thing."

Letarte knows all about bad luck. He was a tire changer on Gordon's team in 2004 when a crew member allowed the air hose to get trapped under the back tire during a late stop at Darlington.

Time lost in the pit turned what appeared to be a sure win into a third-place finish that left Gordon 21 points out of the lead with one race remaining, instead of leading.

"Nobody would have caught us," Letarte said, recalling how Gordon finished 16 points out of the title the following week. "That's the hardest part of a crew chief. You're dependent on others. You can't do everything yourself."

Not that Letarte wants everything on him. He understands you win as a team and lose as a team, that a crew chief can't win the title by himself any more than the driver can.

"There is a spot in life that Jeff and I both are at that makes this easier," he said. "We've won together, lost championships together. Now I haven't been in this position, but if we prepare and bring our A-game to the track and it doesn't work out, that's all we can do.

"We'll still have our family, our kids, next year. We're not going to put the weight of the world on them."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.