Waving the Checkers: California
Prior to the season, I wrote that these two former champions have too much talent, determination and support to go winless a second straight season. Now, just two races into the new season, it’s obvious Kenseth is already in championship form. It’s safe to say Gordon is not far behind.
Still, Matt has two wins, while Jeff is looking for No. 1.
So what’s the difference? Better cars or better engines?
The difference between barely losing and barley winning is often the difference in attitude or frame of mind, and not just for the driver. Kenseth drove a terrific race, but he probably does not win without the exceptional pit stop late in the race.
I’ve written enough the last two weeks regarding how easy it is to botch a pit stop. Greg Biffle is this week’s example, running over an air hose that doomed his chance. Now I’ll attempt to describe how difficult it is to execute a perfect stop when it matters most – the last stop of the day.
First, let me reflect back roughly 10 years ago when I teamed with Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports. During the three years that Gordon recorded double-digit wins, his team would consistently make life easier by gaining valuable positions each time they hit pit road. A common stop then would be 18-19 seconds. The 24 team would consistently knock off 16- to 17-second stops, which either moved him up a few spots in the running order or helped increase his lead.
Ten years later, with pit stops having evolved into the 13- to 14-second range and the margins narrowing dramatically between teams, the attitude has shifted to one of preserving your position in the running order and avoiding the poor stop which would result in spots lost. Yet, despite this, Kenseth’s crew consistently put their driver out faster than everyone else.
How did they do this?
The answer is confidence, and with the confidence comes an attitude centered around finding a way to win.
It exists in the driver, the crew members, even the spotter. It’s the reason the car comes on and off pit road at the fastest allowable speed. It’s the reason the driver identifies his pit stall early upon entering pit road and comes to a stop perfectly at the pit sign (which Biffle didn’t do), allowing both tire changers the luxury of immediately hitting the lug nuts instead of realigning their bodies with the wheels. It is the reason the jack man can whistle to the left side, have the car up and drop it again at precisely the same time that the fifth and final lug has been tightened. All this working together in perfect timing then allows the driver to release the clutch providing power to the rear wheels the moment he senses the left side dropping to the ground.
Perfect final pit stops do not happen in the midst of extended losing streaks; they happen the week after winning the Daytona 500.
Matt Kenseth was my pick to win last week, and I chose Matt not just because of my high regard for his driving talent, but because I’ve experienced firsthand the advantage of team confidence and momentum following a win. It’s an advantage they were not able to recognize in 2008, but one they have already capitalized on in 2009, and one they will carry to Las Vegas.