Commentary

NASCAR prep takes team chemistry

Updated: October 9, 2009, 3:24 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- Crew chief Darian Grubb, who helped lead Tony Stewart to his fourth victory of the season last week at Kansas Speedway, says he's still learning what works for Stewart in a race car.

Grubb and Stewart are nearing the end of their first season together. By any estimation, it has been a huge success. Stewart has a chance to win the Sprint Cup title for the third time in his career.

But Grubb said he knows a lot more about Stewart as a driver now than he did when the season started.

"We made a lot of changes to our entire fleet over the last few months," Grubb said. "We're trying to get things more acclimated to what Tony needs in a race car."

Few partnerships in sport are as important as the crew chief/driver relationship in NASCAR. Success depends on the two men understanding and believing in each other.

"It's all about learning each other," Stewart said. "Honestly, when we started this thing, there were times when I was sitting in the car and I told [Grubb] what my balance was. He told me what we were going to change it, and I was like, 'Wow, is that the right way to go?'

"But Darian knows what these cars like and what this chassis package likes. It's just a matter of tailoring it to what I like feel-wise in the car."

It was Stewart who chose Grubb to lead the No. 14 Chevy team when Stewart became the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2008. Obviously, he believed in Grubb's ability, but he still needed Grubb to prove it to him.

"There were times the first couple of races where I didn't necessarily understand why we were doing something," Stewart said. "But if you go out there and the car responds positively to those changes, you gain that confidence right away."

Gaining a driver's confidence doesn't start at the track. It starts at the shop. When you get to the track, it's too late.

It's the mantra NASCAR crew chiefs love to preach, emphasizing pre-race preparation to every person on their team. If the car isn't racy when you roll it off the hauler for the first practice session of a weekend, you're in trouble.

What a team does Monday through Thursday in the shop is a huge factor in winning a race on Sunday.

First, you have to know where you're going and what your driver needs at that particular track. This week, it's the giant 2-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway.

"One of our biggest challenges at California is fighting the air balance of the cars in traffic," said Jimmy Fennig, crew chief for David Ragan. "California is a wide track with many opportunities to pass, but track position is still important.

"You need your car handling well, but a great car lacking track position won't get it done in the end."

In other words, if the crew makes a mistake in the pits and causes the driver to fall back in the pack, even a fast car can't make up the difference at ACS.

But so many things come into play that must be factored into the equation. In previous years, the late-season race at ACS ran on Labor Day weekend when temperatures soared above 100 degrees.

"In practice [at ACS] when it was really hot, my guys put the heat gun in the car and it registered 170 degrees at my belts," said driver Casey Mears. "That one day was probably the hottest and it really depletes you."

Temperatures will be in the upper 70s on Sunday, a major difference in determining how to set up the car. But it's also warmer conditions than the early season race at Fontana each February.

The Labor Day weekend race started in late afternoon, but ended in darkness under the lights, causing the cars to run much differently at the start of the race than the finish.

Sunday's Pepsi 500, which starts at 12:15 p.m. PT, is an all-daylight show.

Burton … we'll be racing the entire race during the day, so all the teams will be working on getting their cars to make grip. You may see some cars sliding around, but the teams that can turn through the corners easier, and can make grip, are the ones that are going to be successful.

-- Jeff Burton

"Last year it was OK to slide around during the start of the race," said driver Jeff Burton. "When it got dark the track cooled and provided more grip.

"This time, we'll be racing the entire race during the day, so all the teams will be working on getting their cars to make grip. You may see some cars sliding around, but the teams that can turn through the corners easier, and can make grip, are the ones that are going to be successful."

Tires stick to the track better when the asphalt is cooler. Hot weather makes the track greasy and slick. Turning becomes more difficult, especially at ACS where drivers enter the turns at 200 mph.

Crew chiefs had an easier time making those adjustments a few years ago when the Fontana oval was new.

"The biggest challenge now is the track has aged it has lost a lot of grip," said Lance McGrew, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Your corner entry speeds at California are so fast that it's hard to get your driver comfortable and still have the car turn in the center [of the curve] like it needs to."

Winning at Fontana requires a rare combination of power, handling and mechanical endurance.

"To run well at California takes a lot of horsepower," said Tony Gibson, crew chief for Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate. "I think Ryan will have the speed he needs, but Auto Club Speedway is also a handling racetrack.

"It takes a good aero package to get around the track. It's a really smooth track, and your aero package is really important. Our group at Stewart-Haas Racing takes a lot of pride in working on the aerodynamics of the race car."

But setting up a car to perform well at a certain track varies from one driver to the next. What works for one guy may be a disaster for another, depending on driving styles.

A crew chief has to know what his driver needs to run well. That's an ever evolving process.

Just ask Grubb.

"I feel like we learned a lot of lessons together through the year," Grubb said. "We know what details we're missing now to become a strong championship-contending team."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter