So for the first 26 races of the 2014 Sprint Cup season it was, "win and you are in." Now with the Chase starting at Chicago this weekend, it becomes, "Survive and advance," especially for this first Challenger Round. I’ve been giving some thought to it and have been asking the various teams what their plans are for this round.
Almost to a person I have gotten the same response that they are simply going to continue doing what they have been doing all year long. If I was crew chief of a team today, sure, I would go about my weekend of trying to get my car running well, practicing well, qualifying well and hopefully in a position to win the race.
What happens to that scenario if it doesn’t happen? The crew chiefs have got to be smart enough to look at the big picture and realize there is more to this than just, "win at all costs." Regardless of whether you win or not, getting started strong in this first round is so incredibly critical. You almost have to have tunnel vision to a certain degree. You really can’t look any further than the first three races.
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If you look too far down the road too soon, I believe you are simply going to hurt yourself. You no longer have the luxury of saying, "I’ll win at this track in the second round," because it doesn’t work that way anymore. I mean, really, it’s pretty simple math. If you don’t make it through the first round, well, there won’t be a second round for your team.
I don’t give a flip that you are Jeff Gordon or Aric Almirola; you have to be smart enough to give yourself every opportunity to advance. Remember that our Chase is rather unique in that it starts off at a track we haven’t even raced at in 2014, so there is already stress of the unknown to go along with the stress of it being the first race in the Chase. If that wasn’t enough, Homestead — host to the final race where four drivers will have a chance to win it all — s also a track where we haven’t raced.
So that alone creates big challenges for the engineering group as well as the team itself. The engineering gurus are going to have to deliver four or five setups they think might be the hot ticket for Chicago. Then the race team is going to have to figure a way to use and implement the best one or a combination of the best ones to give the driver his best opportunity to kick the Chase for the Championship off in high gear.
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