Sometimes the best strategy is not really having one at all. When you’re talking about NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, doing what you’ve done to be successful is often better than trying something new. After all that’s what got you into the championship hunt in the first place.
And with the Chase being about consistency over 10 races, teams that try something different that doesn’t pay off may end up hurting their championship chances, making it something crew chiefs are unlikely to consider.
“The first eight races or so, you are going to just have to do your best, not take yourself out and get the most points you can. Maybe toward the last little bit, depending on where the points are, you might be able to do some strategy where you’re not as aggressive,” said No. 83 crew chief Ryan Pemberton.
“When you are leading you can lay up and have that luxury or you may have to go for it, but it’s way too early to do either one of those things right now.”
But the operative words here are “right now.”
After a less than optimum start in the first two Chase races for Brian Vickers in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, Pemberton will stick with the stuff that got the team into the 12-driver championship field. Realistically speaking, Vickers needs to pick things up a bit after his slow start saw him fall to 151 points behind leader Mark Martin and drop two spots to 10th in the standings.
Should things not go the way Pemberton wants in the next few races, then a change in the approach to races may come to the No. 83 pit.
“The later it gets the more critical it gets and the further behind you get, the more critical it gets, but there are only so many chances you can take,” he said. “Sometimes you will say that you have to be more aggressive and take a chance, but sometimes the way the race works out, there isn’t an opportunity to take a chance — it really depends on how the cautions fall.”
Then again, teams sometimes have to accept that things simply don’t go their way and live with the consequences. There are so many things beyond the control of the driver and crew, such as getting caught up in wrecks and cut tires, that can take a race away. And when things don’t go Red Bull’s way due to bad luck or circumstance, change for change sake probably won’t be an option.
“You are already trying like crazy on the set-up,” Pemberton said. “Sometimes you can try something totally different but if the car is handling good, you won’t take a chance on a different set-up. But if you’re not hitting the things you want, you might. Risk and reward are different at different times.”
And despite an 11th in New Hampshire and 18th in Dover to start the Chase, there’s no reason to alter the approach after the team made up a massive deficit of almost 200 points in 10 races to finish 12th overall and put the No. 83 into title contention. “I feel good about it and it wasn’t like it was a lucky string or anything,” Pemberton said.
“That’s what’s cool about it: We ran well, we qualified well and nothing was given to us. I think we had one lucky dog in the last 12 races. It was a good time for us.”
That run into the Chase started after a tough weekend in Loudon, New Hampshire, where Vickers finished 35th. At the time, Vickers was in 17th place in the standings, 197 points out of the Chase. And while many outside the team pointed to a lightning quick axle change at Atlanta in early September that kept Vickers on the lead lap and in contention for a Chase berth as the defining moment for the team, Pemberton disagreed.
He pointed instead to that disastrous June race in Loudon where Vickers got tangled up in a huge accident on a restart on Lap 175.
“At the time we thought if we hit a good run we could make the Chase and then we got in that wreck and the race car was tore up,” he recalled. “We were all looking at it and thinking: ‘There is no way.’ But I looked at the guys and said: ‘Look we’re here.’ And they went as hard as they could to get that car back in the race.”
Vickers went on to finish 15 more laps before retiring for good, but not before picking up two spots in the race classification and six valuable points. When you consider that Vickers made the Chase by eight points over Kyle Busch, it’s easy to see how critical a few extra laps can be to a team’s success.
But it was the spirit and mood created by getting the car back out on track against the odds that made the New Hampshire episode so important.
“We did it like it was our last shot at it — everybody pitched in and had to work feverishly hard to get that to happen and that to me was one of the differences in the whole season. That was a misfortune for the whole team but showed the determination of the crew and the whole race team and that’s the attitude they have,” Pemberton insisted.
“When I look back, that one there is the one that was every bit as important as fixing the axle in Atlanta, although the axle at Atlanta was pretty cool.”