Mon Sep 26, 2011 3:55 pm
Less than two weeks ago, Tony Stewart sat amicably amid a group of attentive reporters on Chase Media Day at a downtown Chicago restaurant and talked about the importance of a race team working together.
In between selling his belief that his No. 14 Chevrolet team was "the underdog" and was just happy to be included in the 12-team Chase for the Sprint Cup that determines NASCAR's top champion, Stewart answered a question about the amount of pressure crew chiefs are under over the 10-race Chase.
"I think it's everybody," Stewart said. "I think it's everybody from drivers to tire changers to crew chiefs to competition directors. I think everybody that has a piece in the puzzle has pressure on them -- because it's not one person who's going to make it or break it. But everybody's role is important and you're only going to be as strong as your weakest guy. You don't know where that weakest guy is going to be, but that's the reality of it.
"Everybody has to be on his game, whether he's a tire changer or the gas man or the driver or the crew chief. Everybody has to be on his game for 10 weeks if you're going to come out on top."
Stewart's point obviously made sense. But the fact of the matter is that no one feels the tip of the pressure spear more during the Chase than the driver and his crew chief, who ultimately is responsible for what happens with all the other guys on the team. Oftentimes the crew chief even feels the pressure more -- if for no other reason than the simple fact that he knows he's usually far more expendable than the driver if things don't work out.
No one knows this more than Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief who made all the right calls for the second week in a row Sunday to help his driver and the No. 14 team win the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Pleasing the boss
At the time when Stewart made the aforementioned comments, his team had just snuck into the Chase as the No. 9 seed -- one of only two Chase qualifiers who had yet to win a race this season. He was only a couple of weeks removed from a post-race interview in Michigan where he candidly commented that his team didn't deserve to be included in the post-season party because it would merely be robbing the space from someone who might actually contend for the championship.
And Grubb was no doubt feeling the pressure. On the line not only were the No. 14 team's seemingly slim Chase hopes, but also Stewart's personal streak of having won at least one race in 12 consecutive seasons. Stewart was running out of time to make it 13 in a row.
Added to that is the fact that the usual driver-crew chief dynamic is different for Grubb and Stewart because Stewart also is Grubb's boss. Most drivers only think they're the crew chief's boss; as part-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart actually is.
As demanding as a driver may be, he's likely to be more so during the pressure-filled Chase. Just imagine what it would be like as a crew chief to work for a driver who also happens to be the car owner. Worse yet, Grubb said he was struggling to find the boss answers as they struggled through the summer.
"It was one of those deals where we kind of had no idea," Grubb told reporters after Stewart had claimed his second consecutive victory to open the 2011 Chase. "We had a really good start to the year, had good race cars, fast race cars, chances to win, strategies to win -- but we got beat over and over and over. It beat us down.
"During the middle of the year we couldn't hit on anything that made it better. Rode the same, didn't have feedback or anything that was positive. Everything was just kind of there. The last few weeks we started getting better. I think it was the same time at Michigan that Tony said we weren't Chase contenders even if we made the Chase. I think everybody started taking an extra load, working harder -- and we started getting faster."
No one has been faster at the right time than Stewart in his No. 14 Chevy over the first two races of this Chase.
The back-to-back wins (he opened the Chase by claiming the rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway only six days prior to the New Hampshire triumph) have vaulted Stewart from ninth in the Chase standings to first. The owner/driver truly is in the driver's seat in this championship hunt now.
But he knows he cannot get to where he wants to go without the assistance of his able crew chief and all those others around him.
Stewart is a demanding boss, as are all car owners who rightfully expect results at NASCAR's highest level of racing. He's not afraid to make changes, as evidenced by his dismissal of Bobby Hutchens as SHR's competition director earlier this season.
In Victory Lane Sunday, he even talked about getting rid of "some dead weight" just last week -- although he wouldn't talk about it further during subsequent media interviews and Grubb confirmed that Stewart's comment had nothing to do with personnel within the team.
"I know he went and did a lot of dirt racing and had a lot of fun [last] week, kind of unloaded everything," Grubb said. "Maybe it was a lot of dead weight off his mind."
Pressed on the question again later, Grubb smiled and joked: "Maybe he's talking about me and I just don't know it yet."
Obviously the comment seemed to refer to something that is personal -- rather than personnel. And why in the world would Stewart be changing anyone or anything now within his team anyway?
But it did offer insight into Tony's world. Deliver on his terms or be gone.
This isn't to say for certain that he was ever seriously considering firing Grubb as his crew chief. Only Stewart knows that. But if the team had ended the season winless and last in the Chase, or hadn't sneaked into the Chase at all, who knows?
No team in Sprint Cup is on more of a roll now, and suddenly Grubb is riding high again and being hailed as one of the smartest men in the garage.
That's the way it works. But with eight races still left in this Chase, there is no lifting of the pressure. If anything, now it will increase incrementally with each passing week -- and how Grubb continues to respond to it will have much to do with whether or not Stewart wins his third championship.