Amid all the hoo-ha of last week’s NASCAR media tour a little snippet of information slipped out which showed that Hendrick Motorsports’ Chad Knaus is thinking deeply about what is needed to win the title again in 2011, a record sixth time if it is his driver, Jimmie Johnson who wins it.
Firstly you need to know that until last November the four Hendrick teams were split across two workshops with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sharing one and Johnson and Jeff Gordon sharing the other. Within days of the final race the team announced that the drivers would be shuffled around with Earnhardt moving in with the Johnson team and Martin now sharing with Gordon. Crew chiefs would stay where they were so inevitably Johnson remained with Chad Knaus – why split up a partnership that has won five consecutive titles? – and Earnhardt would now be partnered with Gordon’s old crew chief, Steve Letarte.
You also need to know that the number of men allowed “over the wall” in the pits during the race has been reduced from seven to six following the change to refuelling that dispenses with the catch can man.
Unlike Formula 1 pit crews, NASCAR men are not truckies or technicians or backroom boys doubling up as pit crew for the race. The six men in a NASCAR crew are former athletes, ex American football players, etc. Their sole task is the pit lane duties, they have no other work they are required to do. They have to attend regular and rigorous training sessions and practice their skills constantly, trying to shave fractions of a second from each stop. It is a highly coveted job and for every man who works in the pit lane there are dozens, if not hundreds, who would willingly take his place.
Their work is also considerably tougher than their F1 counterparts, for instance the wheels that you see them throw around, especially at the superspeedways, weigh approximately fifty pounds as they have an inner tyre to prevent the wheel digging in should they have a puncture at 200 mph.
There are only two tyre men so when doing a four-tyre stop they have to do the right side wheels first then sprint round to the left side to change those. They have an airgun and five wheel nuts on each wheel plus a NASCAR official checking that all the (lug) nuts are tightened properly. The jack man has a simple trolley jack which lifts the car with one pump and a “touch” and he also needs to run to both sides of the car with the jack.
With the two wheel men, the jack man, the fuel filler you have one man at the rear for suspension adjustments and one at the front to clean the windscreen and radiator grille.
For obvious reasons it is essential that all teams have a few crew men on standby at each race; for the two, three and four car teams these men would be expected to cover any position that became vacant due to injury, illness, etc.
Chad Knaus’s plan for this year, presumably in agreement with Steve Letarte, is to have eighteen men for the two cars in their garage but not with specific six man teams. It seems they will make up crews out of the pick of the eighteen men available, possibly on a race-by-race basis.
Whilst it is easy to see that in theory Johnson and Earnhardt would always have the best men working on their cars it does beg the question how would a team of six men gel together if they weren’t always practising and working together during races. If you watch the crews servicing their cars during races – if you’re a Sky TV subscriber you will be able to watch on Premier Sports TV on channel 433 – you will see that the men almost have that sixth sense of what each other is doing and can compensate for each others mistakes instinctively. How certain could you be that the sixth sense would be retained with an ever changing crew? And in a pressure cooker situation how would it affect your concentration and ability knowing that your potential replacement is stood just the other side of the wall waiting to fill your boots?
In 2010 at Texas Knaus got rid of his pit crew mid-race – an unprecedented step – when Gordon’s became available after he crashed out. It solved in an instant Knaus’s frustration that Johnson’s men were performing below par and costing their man precious seconds – and places – each stop.
Having six men honed and ready to go at every meeting means Knaus will never have to wait for one of his teammates to wreck before he can make a tactical change of crew in the future.
The move has the potential to be an inspired one. But it also has the potential to be heading down a blind alley and it is significant that to date there has been no mention of the Martin/Gordon shop trying the same format.