On pit road, position is everything

November, 13, 2010

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Mike Ford smiled as he looked at the group of reporters that gathered in the Sprint Cup garage for the pit-stall selection process Saturday morning at Phoenix International Raceway.

"Where were you guys at Kansas?" Denny Hamlin's crew chief asked.

Ford was referring to Chad Knaus' decision to pit Jimmie Johnson in front of Hamlin during the third Chase race, violating what he considered a gentleman's agreement not to pit around each other.

It came to light last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway when Ford returned the favor and pitted ahead of Johnson, a move Ford believes worked since Johnson's pit crew performed so poorly that Knaus swapped over-the-wall gangs with teammate Jeff Gordon during the race.

That brought us to Phoenix for arguably the most highly anticipated and media-covered pit-stall selection process in the history of NASCAR. Ford, Knaus and the officials running the show had smirks on their faces as we documented their every move.


" 'Cause it's funny," Ford said.

It wasn't funny at Kansas. Ford was angry then and still talking about it before Saturday's process, which was intriguing for those of us who have paid little attention to it in the past.

Most races, we take a quick look at the selection chart placed at our seat and then bury it in the pile of quote sheets. But with so much on the line, with Hamlin 33 points ahead of Johnson and 59 ahead of Kevin Harvick, and with such a big deal made about last week's selection, it became an event.

For the record, it appears Harvick won. He'll be pitting in the 37th spot, with start-and-parker Dave Blaney ahead of him and potential start-and-parker Bobby Labonte behind him. Johnson has the 39th stall, with Labonte behind him and Paul Menard ahead of him, so he at least has a chance to have lapped-down cars around him late in the race.

Hamlin is surrounded by trouble on both sides in the No. 18 stall, with Johnson teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in front of him and Harvick teammate Jeff Burton behind him. For the record, this could be the first time Earnhardt has been involved in the outcome of the Chase in a while.

Yep, there's strategy involved.

Mind games, too.

Hamlin will have to wonder every time he pits whether Earnhardt or Burton will do something to slow him down. It happens. Robbie Loomis reminded me of it last week when recalling the Chase finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he crew-chiefed for Gordon.

"Chad and I had a deal we never picked around each other," said Loomis, now the vice president for competition at Richard Petty Motorsports. "In '04 we qualified good and he qualified bad, and he picked right ahead of us. He finished second in points and we finished third.

"I'll remember that the rest of my life. I think the quote from Jeff was, 'You tell him if he leaves that right rear hanging out one more time, I'm going to drive through him.'"

Drivers aren't allowed to leave the right rear of the car outside the box anymore, but the strategy to disrupt neighboring pit crews remains.

Because of it, we'll all be back next week at Homestead making Ford smile again.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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