Long: How crew chiefs mastered Pocono’s challenges
While the Cup race at Pocono Raceway went as drivers predicted with passing difficult, it showed the value of a strong team.
Rodney Childers, Paul Wolfe and Adam Stevens displayed talents Sunday that have made them among the sport’s top crew chiefs.
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The talk before the race was how track position would be critical. Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, struck early. With a competition caution on Lap 20, Childers had Harvick pit for four tires before that caution.
“I know on our box when we got to Lap 19, (Harvick) rolled on to pit road and I looked at my engineer and I said, ‘Why are they … awwww’ because Rodney made a great call on that one, one we totally should have gotten and missed, the field missed it,” said Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” on Monday.
Harvick was 11th when he pitted.
Harvick returned to the pits during the competition caution for fuel — teams cannot add fuel before a competition caution. Filling the car with fuel didn’t take as long as changing four tires. That allowed Harvick to pass cars on pit road.
The move put Harvick ninth on the restart — gaining two positions — but six of the eight cars in front of him had two tires to his four.
Harvick moved to sixth on the first lap of the restart. By pitting before the competition caution for tires and then filling up the tank during the caution, Childers gained Harvick two spots and put him in position to gain three more positions on the restart.
When Austin Dillon crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later, Harvick restarted sixth in the outside lane — the preferred lane — and moved to fourth after the restart.
Childers adjusted his strategy to be on the same plan with Kyle Busch and Stevens. They were among those who pitted on Lap 94 while others stayed out until the end of the second stage at Lap 100.
That put Harvick on the front row with Busch for the restart after stage 2 since they stayed out during the break. Harvick’s chances took a hit with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on a two-tire stop on Lap 124 and then a steering box issue. But up to that point, Childers had played the game well enough to put Harvick in position to challenge for the win.
Wolfe did a masterful job in guiding Brad Keselowski to a second-place finish. While others sacrificed stage points for track position, Keselowski finished third in the first stage and fifth in the second stage. Keselowski scored 50 points — more than any other driver.
Wolfe’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the point total but adjusting his strategy when things went against him. It’s a trait the champion crew chief has had for years.
Wolfe called for a two-tire pit stop for Keselowski during the competition caution. Keselowski entered the pits seventh and exited second. Keselowski was the first of two cars (Martin Truex Jr. was the other) who did not pit after the first stage. That gave Keselowski the lead. He needed to pit but since a car at the front can do it at Pocono without losing a lap, Keselowski was in good shape.
Then came the caution a couple of laps after the restart for Matt DiBenedetto’s spin.
Wolfe had to adjust his strategy. He pitted during that caution (as did Truex) and was outside the top 15 and mired in traffic. Keselowski moved up to fifth by the end of stage 2 as others in front pitted and he didn’t. Keselowski then pitted during the break.
But Keselowski still didn’t have track position. He was 13th on the restart. He gained three spots to 10th on the first lap of the restart but was stuck there.
Keselowski was 12.5 seconds behind the leader when Wolfe called Keselowski in to pit on Lap 119 of 160. Keselowski was in his fuel window to make it to the end, so Wolfe decided to bring his driver in for a two-tire stop to stay on the lead lap (changing four tires likely would have put Keselowski a lap down).
Keselowski was the first car to pit and worked his way through the field as others stopped under green. Keselowski was fourth when the caution came out on Lap 148 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident.
The leaders stayed out. Keselowski, fourth, restarted in the outside lane and took advantage of that spot. He pushed Busch to the lead and shot to second, passing Erik Jones in Turn 1.
But Keselowski couldn’t get by Busch, a tribute not only to Busch but to Stevens. Busch and Stevens have combined to win 26 of 142 races (18.3%) in Cup since being paired in 2015.
A good crew chief puts his driver in position to excel. For Stevens, that is putting Busch close to the front. While Keselowski and a few others pitted ahead of Busch on what was their final stop, Stevens held his driver out until Lap 124.
Four years ago, Busch lost a bid to win a fourth consecutive Cup race when he ran out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono. Stevens said that day that they were good with fuel to make it to the end but didn’t factor how much the pace increased in the closing laps and that cost Busch the win.
Stevens didn’t let the same thing happen this time and was celebrating in victory lane with Busch afterward.
It’s easy to overlook since Chris Buescher didn’t finish in the top 10 but Sunday’s 14th-place finish was significant.
It marked the first time Buescher has placed in the top 15 in three consecutive races for JTG Daugherty Racing since joining the organization in 2017. He was 10th at Kansas and sixth in the Coca-Cola 600.
Seven finishes of 20th or worse have Buescher 22nd in the season standings. He’s 60 points out of what would be the final playoff spot.
Still, this is a step forward for the organization and will be worth watching in the coming weeks if similar performances can continue.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have combined to win 10 of the 14 points races this season.
There’s a similar level of domination taking place in the Xfinity Series among three drivers. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have combined to win the past six Xfinity races.
They’ve also combined to win eight of the 12 races this season. Busch has three wins. Michael Annett is the only other driver to win, capturing the season-opening race at Daytona. Bell, Custer and Reddick also have combined to win 13 of 24 stages and lead 58.8% of the laps (1,300 of 2,212).
They’ve also all finished in the top five in five races. They went 1-2-3 at Bristol with Bell winning, followed by Reddick and Custer.
The key question is where will they be next season. Reddick, the reigning Xfinity champ, is in his second full season. So is Bell. This is Custer’s third full season in Xfinity. They’re showing that it’s time to move them to Cup next season.