“Crazy” would be an understatement in describing Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. From two of the mellowest drivers in the garage area engaging in fisticuffs to Kyle Busch being penalized two laps for giving an official the “one finger salute”, there was enough action to keep race fans entertained for all 500 miles.
But as if those incidents weren’t controversial enough, one championship contending team has the garage area and the grandstands alike all abuzz.
On lap 191, Martin Truex Jr. smacked the wall in turn three and brought out the caution. In a totally separate incident—and under caution—Jeff Burton put the nose of his No. 31 Chevrolet right up against Jeff Gordon’s rear bumper and spun him up into the outside retaining wall. To say the least, Gordon was not happy. Both exited their racecars and met down on the apron of the track, where Gordon shoved Burton and the two scuffled for a few seconds before NASCAR officials separated both drivers.
While Burton was able to return to the racetrack, the No. 24 Chevrolet was determined to be irreparable and the team bega to pack up and go home.
Then came a request that nobody expected: The No. 24 team was told to pack up their equipment and head … to their Hendrick Motorsports teammate’s pit box. The No. 48 pit box driven by that of Jimmie Johnson, to be exact. Crew chief Chad Knaus decided to make the decision to swap pit crews, as the stops from the regular No. 48 crew had been lackluster thus far in the race.
Pit stop times definitely seemed to improve, but not by a significant enough amount to make a huge difference.
Johnson finished ninth while closest points competitor Denny Hamlin went on to win the race. This cost Johnson the points lead as he now sits 33 points out of the lead from Hamlin and 26 points ahead of third place Kevin Harvick.
“We needed to do something,” said Knaus after the race. “This is a team and the 24/48 shop has always operated as a team and that’s the way that we see it. It’s sad that we had to do that but in the interest of Hendrick Motorsports we’ve gotta do and we gotta do that stuff. It’s not uncommon. We’ve seen it happen before. We’ll get home, we’ll try and get it fixed up, and we’ll try and get our boys back.”
Mike Ford, crew chief for Hamlin, didn’t quite see it that way.
“I won't say that race team -- that Jimmie, Chad and Rick needed to do that if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it,” said Ford. “They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team. “
Ford hit the nail on the head. The team was having an off day, unfortunately in one of the most important races in the season. Johnson was even begging his team after a stop, “I need you guys today!” If anything, these guys needed a morale boost. They didn’t need to be thrown to the wayside because they weren’t living up to standards.
Does Johnson get replaced when he has off days? Should Dale Earnhardt Jr. be swapped out mid-race when he goes a lap down? What about when Busch got himself in trouble with a NASCAR official? Should J.D. Gibbs have decided to replace Busch in the car with another driver who might do a better job at keeping his temper in check?
There is nothing wrong with making changes. Richard Childress swapped the pit crews of his No. 29 and No. 33 teams and the results seem to have been beneficial. The No. 33 team has since won a race and the No. 29 team continues to give Harvick stops that he is (for the most part) happy with.
Now, the No. 48 pit crew is left with a huge hit to their morale, a key element to the success of a race team as noted several times by Knaus himself. Judging by Knaus’s post-race comments, he is expecting to bring the same guys back next weekend.
“I’m hoping that we can get back the 48 guys and get everyone’s confidence back up and get this thing going in the right direction,” said Knaus. “It’s not what we want to do but sometimes things need to be adjusted a little bit and we had to do that today.”
So, let me get this straight. Knaus was unhappy with the performance of the team, swapped them out for a team that has yet to win a race this season, and expects them to come back the next week like nothing happened.
Call me crazy, but I would imagine that the move probably wasn’t very popular among the same guys that helped the No. 48 team to championship contention in the first place.
A better option? Let the No. 24 team keep them. If Knaus thinks that the No. 24 pit crew is a better option than a team that rarely ever makes mistakes, then let him have them. Give the No. 48 crew a place that hopefully won’t quit on them and perhaps show Knaus what a great asset they really are.
While the loss of the points lead seemed to be more of the result of a bad handling racecar than slow pit stops (Knaus, honey, are we not doing our job?), the No. 48 team didn’t do themselves any favors by ridding themselves of a championship potential pit crew.
Many teams out there would be lucky—and more than happy—to bring a No. 48 crew member over to their race team. Teams that wouldn’t bench that crew member because of an off day. Maybe that should be an option they consider exploring.