Commentary

View from atop the pit box offers Cup drivers a bird's-eye perspective

What do you get when Cup drivers act as crew chiefs for wide-eyed contest winners trying to turns laps at super-fast Lowe's Motor Speedway? The need for speed, writes David Newton.

Updated: December 10, 2008, 3:24 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

driversCourtesy GilletteRyan Newman (green shirt), Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer got a chance to play crew chief for a day.

CONCORD, N.C. -- Kasey Kahne stood atop the Petty Driving Experience hauler trying to coax the man behind the wheel of his familiar No. 9 Budweiser Dodge to step on the gas as he entered Turn 3 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"Try to get a little more out of it if you can," Kahne says as nicely as possible into the radio headset.

Denny Hamlin looked at the speed chart, noticing the last lap took 64 seconds. That's approximately 84 mph if you're doing the math.

"A little more?" he says with a laugh. "Try 20 percent. Kasey could go down and run beside him and coach him. You'd think somewhere on the interstate he'd run faster than that. That's caution speed, isn't it?"

Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, all crowded onto the platform, couldn't help but laugh.

It's not often they get to play the role of crew chief, particularly for somebody off the street with no experience. But that was their role on this day as they worked with winners of a Gillette Young Guns promotion.

"It's a whole different role," Busch says. "The first time I spoke to my guy, he was right in the apex of the corner. I hate it when my crew chief does that. I realized real quickly there is a responsibility here, so I talked to him on the straightaways from then on."

Hamlin has a whole new appreciation for his crew chief, Mike Ford, after the experience.
[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
Courtesy GilletteCarl Edwards autographs the racing suit of one of the Gillette contest winners.

"It's difficult," he says. "You know the things you want them to do, and it's hard to get them to do it. I definitely understand now what Mike's frustrations are."

The challenge on this day, other than being at the track during the offseason, was harder than most for the Sprint Cup stars. Being fast wasn't the goal. Consistency was -- hence the name of the competition, "TimeShaver" Challenge.

Here's how it worked. Each of the nine contestants participated in a Happy Hour session trailing a Petty car. They took the speed from the lap they felt most comfortable and then tried to match that on five trips around LMS without a lead car.

The driver who had the lowest number won.

For example, Kahne's driver, Robert Jakuboski of Chicago, needed to average 50-second laps. He wasn't close.

He also wasn't the slowest.

"Mine is running 75 seconds," Clint Bowyer says of Brenda Cohen from Pittsburgh.

To put that into perspective, three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson posted a fast lap of 182.753 mph in the October race at LMS. That's more than 100 mph faster than Cohen's lap -- if you're counting.

And while the drivers poked fun at some of the speeds, their competitive nature remained fully intact. Asked what was most fun about being a crew chief, Hamlin says, "The competition amongst us coaches to be the guy to stand in Victory Lane."

This day went pretty much like the season, with Edwards and one of his two drivers, Robert Hoffman of Oakland, taking the top prize, just as Edwards did a series-high nine times this past season.

"It's weird watching your car going around the track and not be in it," says Edwards, who squeezed in the competition between a trip to New York for the Sprint Cup Awards banquet and a tire test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "At least mine is fast."

Hoffman apparently was fast right off the truck, posting not only the most consistent lap but also one of the fastest (139 mph).

No, the oil pan cover wasn't off, as several joked, referring to Edwards' being penalized for that violation after an early-season win. And no, Edwards didn't tell his driver to conserve fuel as he did to win twice in the final month.

"But he was running about the same speed I was," Edwards says, flashing his famous smile.

Edwards' toughest task was getting his drivers to go slower, particularly Drew Beaugard of St. Louis. Beaugard, trying to match his Happy Hour lap of 44.1 seconds, posted a lap of 43.90 after Edwards asked him to back off the gas.

"I don't know that we could do that," Hamlin says. "We're all trying to go as fast as we can. We all hate it when our crew chief says we're real consistent."

The drivers appreciated the feedback and encouragement they were given, even though most were too nervous to push the limits as far as their crew chiefs would.

They also appreciated better the talent it takes to get around a track at high speeds -- relatively speaking.

"Let me tell you something," says Jim Layton, who left a snowstorm in Bangor, Maine, to work with Newman on this cool but sun-splashed day. "A lot of people underestimate the talent these guys have. It's unbelievable all they can do at the speeds they do and still be able to talk and recognize pressure in the rear tire and all this other foolishness.

"I don't know how the heck they do it. Remarkable."

Newman tried to help Layton as much as possible. He explained that because you don't look at the tachometer in the corner, you have to connect the sound of the motor at a certain speed on the straightaway with the speed in the corner.

"Get that tac reading right and get that speed right and you'll be fine," the reigning Daytona 500 champion says before Layton goes for his final run.

Replies Layton, "Yeah, you start speaking English at me and I'll see what I can do."

Yes, there were a few communication problems. The language of drivers and crew chiefs doesn't always connect with street-driver language.

Kahne thought his driver was nervous because he never talked back. Then Bowyer reminded him that the radios are set up such that the driver can't reply.

"I bet all crew chiefs would like that," Busch says.

All of the Cup drivers gave sage advice.

"Feel with your ass," Edwards says as he leaned in the passenger-side window of his No. 99 car. "That's what we do. You can tell if you're going fast. It's all in the seat."

And for the record, Kahne's driver was a bit nervous.

"He kept telling me I needed to speed up," Jakuboski says. "I was trying to. It's not that easy."

He didn't have to tell Kahne or his fellow crew chiefs that.

"Kasey, can't you get your guy to go faster?" Hamlin says. "We're going to run out of daylight."

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

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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