There are innumerable factors that will go into deciding the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). One element that will not play a role, however, is experience; or a lack thereof among the four teams vying for the title.
Each driver who’s qualified for the Playoffs Championship 4 round is no stranger to the pressure they’ll face this weekend, having been in this same situation multiple times. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are each making their fourth appearance in the title-deciding race, while Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. are both in their third final.
And the experience extends beyond just the drivers, but to their respective crew chiefs as well. Todd Gordon (Logano), Cole Pearn (Truex) and Adam Stevens (Busch) have been paired with their driver for every Championship 4 berth they’ve earned. They are well acclimated to the ins and outs of a weekend that can often feel like an emotional rollercoaster where every decision is scrutinized.
“The first time into it in 2014, you didn't know,” said Gordon regarding his mindset entering a best-finish-wins-the-championship race. “It was a new format. You didn't know how to handle it or how the weekend was going to go.
“There was a lot more anxiety, I think, into the '14 race, and the fear of the unknown. I think '16 we raced into that race and just felt like we needed to handle it like the other races and continue to work forward, and I thought that was a decent approach to the weekend. I thought we were very competitive. I thought we were in a position that we could race for the championship late with 20 [laps] to go.”
Gordon, Pearn and Stevens each say their past experiences will help mitigate any challenges they’ll face at Homestead, whether in practice, qualifying, or the race itself. Essentially a “been there, done that” mindset where you try to ignore what is at stake.
“We tried to make this weekend as normal as we can in how we approach the weekend,” Gordon said.
And though this is the first go-round in the Championship 4 for Harvick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, it’s not as if he’s some green newbie who will be overwhelmed by the moment. Gibson, in fact, has been a crew chief in more Cup races (441) than Gordon (247), Pearn (142) or Stevens (138), and he guided Kurt Busch to victory in the Daytona 500 last season.
Gibson finds himself leading Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team because of a rules violation found on Harvick’s winning car at Texas Motor Speedway. That earned Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief since 2014, a two-race suspension and pressed SHR to tab Gibson in relief.
“My biggest fear is just making the wrong call or doing the wrong thing,” Gibson said. “I want those guys to be proud of me. Like I told Rodney, I just want to do you a good job and hope you can be proud of me.”
The 54-year-old veteran crew chief proved his mettle during the Round of 8 elimination race last Sunday at ISM Raceway. Harvick was leading the race when a punctured tire necessitated an unscheduled, green-flag pit stop that could’ve derailed his title hopes. Gibson calmly called for a two-tire stop that kept Harvick from falling too far behind, then used his strategy to get his driver back in contention.
Harvick rallied to finish fifth, a good enough result to claim the last transfer position.
“When I called for those two tires this past weekend, the first thing I thought about, ‘Man, did I just mess up here? Did that one decision I made put everybody in a bad spot and could this be the end of it?” Gibson said. “But sometimes you have to make calls from your gut and you worry about what happens later.”
The challenge all four crew chiefs will face this weekend is trying to treat this race like any other when it is actually anything but. That is easier said than done, though having been in this position before certainly helps.
“The first year for us we really didn't know what to expect or what we were getting into, and we came away with a lot of learning to do from that,” Pearn said. “I think even in '16 when we didn't make it, we prepared as though we were going to make it and felt a lot more prepared when we got there last year.
“We're just trying to continue to build on the things that we felt like we didn't do right last year. And hopefully, make gains on those and be in better shape this time.”