Johnson's Pit Strategy Backfired in Michigan

In the few years I’ve been covering Sprint Cup racing at Michigan International Speedway, I have never seen an ending like Sunday's: Mark Martin getting the win because the two drivers in front of him both ran out of gas.

For our pre-race show “NASCAR Live on TNT,” I was given access to give a sneak peak of “race control,” where all the NASCAR top brass watch and call the race from high above the track. It's where they control the cautions and use the automated system to line up the proper cars on a restart. It gets very intense. David Hoots, one of the sport's “jack of all trades,” said that for them, it's all about safety of drivers, and it's interesting because during a race, the guys up there make a determination and then radio down to the officials at the track. Those officials are in charge of getting word (whatever the message is) to the crew chiefs of the NASCAR teams. You can imagine things get pretty heated and there are times that you hear them say things like, “Don’t make me put him another lap down,” but it's all about communication and making the race, the broadcast and everything flow collectively.

It's so unique because, as Hoots said, NASCAR is one sport where all of these people that pull it off -- the drivers, the crews, the officials -- travel together like a circus each week, and no matter what happens, you are going to be dealing with the same folks week in and week out. It really is, in that sense, like family.

The drives to and from the Michigan Speedway are among my favorites on the circuit. The Irish hills are beautiful, and there are lots of interesting little mom and pop ice cream shops and BBQ joints that we pass. The funniest was a restaurant called Harold's, where the sign tries to persuade patrons with the message "good looking waitress."

In our Saturday production meeting, the four pit reporters found out which pits we had for the race. We always break pit road into four sections. I had the end by "pit-in,” or the entrance to pit road. My biggest contenders were Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya. We shoot our pre-race interviews and live shots at various locations around the track and usually end up riding in the trucks with the drivers after driver intros because of the timing. This week, that’s where I ended interviewing Carl Edwards. It's pretty cool riding along and getting their perspectives as the fans go crazy and the drivers wave to them.

After the interviews, we get in position for our final “pit whip” just before the show. Since Jimmie Johnson was my highest qualifier in Michigan, I did my 30-second update on his status for the race, then I set up shop in his pit. I have a scanner and I listen to his communication with crew chief Chad Knaus until one of my other drivers takes the lead, at which point I switch. Pit spotter John Gelzer (also from D.C.!) scans the rest of the cars while I focus on Johnson so that I am covered and prepared to talk about the other cars when the time is right.

The pit stops are chaos but thrilling. You have to be ready, and it's critical to have the information about how a driver is feeling about his car beforehand so we can relay that to the viewer. One of the tricky things is reading when a team is going to take four tires or if they will choose to save track position and opt for two. That's where relationships really become key, because this sport is so much about trust. For example, at the end of this race, I needed to find out if Knaus really thought they could stretch it on fuel. In that case, I motion to him or write down with a Sharpie “Can you make it?” Knaus keeps everything close to the vest. He made the “we’re gonna be close” sign with his fingers and shrugged his shoulders. That information, though slight, can be built into a report, especially when you have Johnson’s radio chatter to go along with it.  

In the 48 pit as the race was about to begin, Knaus gave his team a pep talk over the radio, which is not uncommon. He told everyone “great job over the weekend" and that they needed to keep in mind it was just the second week of the new double file restarts. He also added that he thought the race was going to be crazy and might end with a two tire stop or a gas-and-go at the very end. He climbed down from his pit box and shook the hand of every single crewmember before the race. As Johnson came around behind the pace car, he told everyone to get up on the wall. Every crewmember did, and they all held up their left hands and gave a hand signal to Johnson, cheering him on as the race began. It's clear they’ve got a high standard on that team and throughout the Hendrick organization.

You can imagine the intensity when Johnson was trying to take the lead in the final laps. He went for it. Knaus kept telling him to just “get past” the 5 car because he knew the 16 in front of him did not have enough fuel to make it. Johnson got around the 5, and Knaus told him to go as hard as he could for seven laps. Johnson did, but on the very last lap, he ran out of gas. Because Johnson pushed the 16 of Greg Biffle so hard (great racing by the way) that Biffle also ran out of gas, and even though he was coasting on fumes, Mark Martin got the win, his third of the season. The 48 team ended up way back, frustrated that the gamble blew up in their faces.

I am prepping for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. It should be a blast and a very unique race. Juan Pablo Montoya has done well the past two races, and if he can take charge at his best -- the road courses -- this chase will be very exciting.

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