Crew chiefs may star at Homestead
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Mike Ford's back was against the wall of the No. 11 hauler as he took question after question about his decision to pit for gas with 14 laps remaining in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.
You could make the case that it was against the championship wall after watching Denny Hamlin's lead shrink from 33 points to 15 with one race remaining.
But Ford never wavered on what was his only choice because his car was at least seven to eight laps shy of making it to the finish without more fuel. He didn't show the frustration that his driver did a half hour earlier sitting dejected on the pit road wall and throwing a water bottle against his car. Ford's nature doesn't allow for that.
"Crew guys have just as a competitive nature as the guys that climb in [the car]," Ford explained. "This is why you do it. You like that rush. You like the weight on your shoulders. You like making things happen.
For the past four years, Chad Knaus has been the crew chief having the most fun. He's been called a genius, one of the best ever at his role after leading Jimmie Johnson to an unprecedented four straight titles and no finish outside the top five in points since the two were paired in 2002.
Those accolades were repeated again on Sunday, first for the decision to make the swap of pit crews with teammate Jeff Gordon for the final two races and then for coaxing 88 laps of fuel out Johnson and his car for a fifth-place finish that put the 48 team 15 points behind Hamlin and in position for another title.
But Knaus has some serious competition in Ford, who isn't as physically fit, tailored and charismatic as his counterpart but is every bit the strategist and expert at getting the most out of his driver.
This is the battle to watch. As much as the week will be about Hamlin and Johnson -- with third-place Kevin Harvick having an outside shot 46 points back -- Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway likely will come down to decisions made by their crew chiefs.
Pit or don't pit? Two tires or four or none? Gamble on fuel or not? Those things have a far greater chance of determining the outcome than a great pass or move on a double-file restart.
Ford and Knaus know it.
They relish it.
"Winning races is a lot of fun, but trying to win races is a helluva lot more fun," Knaus said. "I love to battle. I love getting out there and trying to figure out how to beat somebody. That is a three-hour high that you live with for the whole race.
"Trying to figure out how to win races and championships, that's what it's about."
It's well-documented what Knaus is all about, how he moved to North Carolina in 1991, later lobbied Ray Evernham for a job on Gordon's championship pit crew, took a chance to work with unknown rookie Johnson in 2002 and how their relationship was so strained after falling short of the title in 2005 that owner Rick Hendrick sat them down in his office with milk and cookies before they got on this incredible title roll.
Most don't know a lot about Ford because until now, Hamlin hasn't been a serious contender this late in the game.
Had Ford not been so outspoken after the Texas race, saying Knaus' decision to swap pit crews during the race was an act of desperation and then adding "our team is better than their race team," you may not have known his name.
But it's time you get to know Ford. The relationship and trust he and Hamlin have is similar to what has made Knaus and Johnson a Hall of Fame combination.
There are similarities in the career paths of Ford and Knaus as well, down to a connection with Evernham.
Like Knaus, Ford's first claim to fame was on a pit crew, serving as a mechanic and jack man for Dale Jarrett's 1999 championship team at Robert Yates Racing. In 2000, when Evernham moved from crew chief to team owner, he hired Ford as a crew chief for Bill Elliott. The two won the 2002 Brickyard 400 and three other races before Ford returned to RYR for a short stint with Jarrett before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing midway through 2005.
Jason Leffler was in the No. 11 at the time, but before season's end the switch was made to a promising, young driver from Chesterfield, Va.
"Mike and Denny had a little click there right off the top," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said.
The following year Hamlin finished third in points and was the rookie of the year, as Johnson won his first title in his fifth full season. Now in their fifth full season, Hamlin and Ford are challenging for that first championship.
Like Johnson and Knaus, they had their version of the milk-and-cookies meeting, although team ownership wasn't involved. It happened in 2008, when Hamlin threw his team and organization under the bus after blowing an engine late at Michigan.
He publicly criticized the engine department and attacked his pit crew for its inconsistency. As Ford said at the time, "We had some double-throwdown and not-so-friendly meetings."
"The conversation was making sure they were going in the same direction," Gibbs said. "Now that you know that, it helps makes other issues easier to handle."
Ford brought balance to Hamlin's life then. Ford was the well-grounded, no-nonsense family man who helped calm the party-hard, playboy lifestyle of his driver. He made Hamlin realize that there was more responsibility to being a driver than turning the wheel.
And he did it with the same brutal honesty that some misinterpreted for cockiness at Texas.
"He's the least cocky guy I know," said Hamlin, the defending champion at Homestead. "He's more boastful of his own team than he is skeptics of someone else's. It kind of came off wrong."
Ford may not be cocky, but he is competitive. When Knaus picked the pit stall ahead of his at Kansas, he was irate that what he thought was a gentleman's agreement had been broken.
When the opportunity arose to get even at Texas, Ford didn't hesitate.
Steve Addington, who worked with Ford while serving as Kyle Busch's crew chief -- before moving to Penske Racing this year -- describes Ford as a "fist-on-the-table guy."
"When stuff comes up, he's going to say what's on his mind and what he believes," he said.
Ford is smart and calculating, but he's not the rah-rah witty leader that Knaus can be. He motivates with facts, not locker-room fodder.
"If you debate Mike, you've got to debate facts, not feelings," Evernham said. "Mike wasn't playing head games and trying to screw those guys' [Johnson's team] heads up. He was just speaking what's on his mind."
More than anything, Ford simply is a good guy, a commonsense guy who doesn't get bogged down by what he so politely referred to as "bulls---" over what he said at Texas.
He won't let Hamlin get bogged down by losing a fuel-mileage race he dominated at Phoenix.
"They both have really in the last couple of years matured," said Greg Zipadelli, Joey Logano's crew chief who won two titles with Tony Stewart at JGR. "Denny is just a calculated machine. Mike can really do what he needs to do and know the results are going to be there. It's amazing right now.
"It comes from working together and realizing what their shortfalls have been."
Addington said it best: "Pairing him with Mike Ford, that was the best thing that could have happened to Denny Hamlin."
Even Knaus appreciates the man he'll be trying to outthink this weekend.
"He's definitely earned his stripes and earned his opportunity to be on a team of that caliber," he said. "What they've got over there is extremely good equipment and really good stuff. He makes the most of it and uses his tools to his full potential.
"If he wasn't, he wouldn't be where he's at."
Where Ford's at isn't with his back against the wall. He's just having fun and giving Knaus all he can handle.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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