Crew Chief-Driver pairings among Championship 4 at Phoenix have interesting storylines

Crew chiefs play an integral role in determining who wins a NASCAR championship or not. I mean just look at the lists of guys that have won the title on top of the pit box. Rodney Childers has led Kevin Harvick to a ton of success since they joined forces in 2014. Same for Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch when they were paired in 2015. Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn were a force to be reckoned with. Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus, Jeff Gordon/Ray Evenham, Richard Petty, Dale Inman. 

Behind every good team is a good coach. Same in NASCAR. Crew chiefs are a large part of this equation. Championships are not just won by the driver. 

So, does that bode well for Joey Logano and Paul Wolfe on Sunday?

“The way things have turned out this year, the way this format is any more, it’s hard to say anyone has an advantage honestly,” Wolfe said on Tuesday. “I don’t feel that way going into it.”

Wolfe, is the only crew chief among those left in the Championship 4 to have won a title before. None of the other three have done so. Should that hold some merit?

What does hold some merit according to Wolfe is that they’ve had extra time to prepare this car for Phoenix. By winning the opening race of the Round of 8, they’ve had two extra weeks to massage the No. 22 Ford for Sunday’s race to where none of the other three competing against him have had a chance to do so. 

“I feel like we have an advantage because we won at Kansas, like I said, have had maybe a little more time to put thoughts into how do we want to approach the race, things like that,” Wolfe continued.

Logano, won the first race of the Round of 8 two years ago at Martinsville. He went on to win the championship that year. Does history repeat itself?

The winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has finished either first or second in each of the last four years.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano continued. “I think it means a lot, if I’m being honest.  I think it does.  I’ve lived this story once where you really just kind of — you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix because you’re trying to build so many other ones.  It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.

“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize, you’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first.  Now that we did that, we’re going to have 100% of our time to Phoenix.”

Chase Elliott also believes it gives Logano an advantage for this weekend too. But, Elliott’s crew chief in Alan Gustafson, has been here before. He’s just not won the championship. He’s not afraid of this moment though and is coming off of a win last Sunday in Martinsville. 

“Yeah, I don’t think you can really be prepared for it until you go through it,” Gustafson said of being in the final round. “It’s certainly a different situation.  He’s raced to transfer into the Final 8.  He’s been in the Round of 8 now I guess, I don’t know, for the last three years or four years.  He knows what it’s like to be in kind of that must-win situation.

“This is really no different.  There’s a lot of focus on the four cars.  That’s the majority of the focus from the press and the media and the TV and everybody around.  Ultimately you’ve got to win.  You don’t have to win, but most likely you’re going to have to win to be the champion.

“There’s a lot of pressure that went through that.  Going through this weekend, we can help prepare him for it.  Yeah, it’s a unique experience.  I think you have to go through it to really understand it and learn how to manage it.”

The other Penske car in Brad Keselowski is exact the opposite. Keselowski, has been in the Championship 4 before, but his crew chief and his pit crew haven’t in the Cup Series. The last time Keselowski was in the Championship 4, it was with Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano’s current crew.

“Yeah, it’s different,” said Jeremy Bullins, Keselowski’s crew chief. “But fortunately we’ve been through this a couple times with the Xfinity car, a little bit different format obviously.  We won the 2013 owners championship by one point.  We’ve had some close battles.  We’ve had to scratch and claw a little bit.

“It is a first opportunity at the Cup level.  I think just that experience alone from the Xfinity side will help.  I think we’re just trying to make it no more than what it is, not make it bigger than what it is.  Obviously there’s a lot on the line.  We still got to go about our business, do things the way we’ve done all year to be in this position.

“As long as everyone goes into it with that mentality, we’ll have the mindset and keep ourselves where we need to be.”

Bullins, is bringing the same No. 2 Ford for Keselowski that he won Loudon and Richmond with. They feel like there’s an advantage to be had there. 

“It’s been a great car,” said Bullins. “Hopefully it’s got one more good weekend in it.  I think we’ve done everything we can do to continue to learn and make it better, apply everything that we could that we’ve learned since Richmond, make some good decisions, try to make it as good as we can make it.

You certainly know what Brad is capable of when you go to the racetrack.  Having success in the Xfinity car in the past kind of made it easy to hit the ground running. I think I wouldn’t say it was a motivation.  It was just trying to take advantage of the situation really of having his experience.”

For the other driver and crew chief combo, they’ve worked about as well as any of them though in the recent years. Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin have won 13 times together since the start of last year. No one has won more. Only Childers-Harvick have won as many at 13 trips to victory lane too. 

While Wolfe has won a championship before, he’s not won one in this format. He’s also in his first season working with Logano. Bullins, is in his first season working with Keselowski and in his first Cup Championship Four at that. Gustafson and Chase Elliott have never been here together either. Elliott, has no Championship 4 appearances prior to this Sunday and Gustafson has only been here once. 

Gabehart and Hamlin are the only two that have been to the final round together before. 

“It’s a lot of things,” Gabehart said of what makes he and Hamlin so perfect together. “It’s really about this whole race team. Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx, Toyota, all the members of the 11 team, all the guys back here at the shop. It takes all of that for that foundation to allow us to work together the way we do.

“The bottom line is it’s trust.  He trusts that he’s getting the very best out of his race team each and every week.  I trust he’s giving us his very best each and every week.  That trust builds upon success.  We’ve been fortunate to have that.  It does nothing but continue to grow roots, hopefully for years to come.”

Also, Hamlin and Gabehart have an advantage to where they won the Playoff race at Phoenix just last year. 

“I can’t think of a more favorable position to be in,” Gabehart continued. “There’s certainly a more pressure-packed situation to be in than we were last year, way more than Richmond. For us making the Championship 4 is the goal.  Winning the championship is gravy.  Last year, like Chase, when we were in a do-or-die situation, we were able to pull it off at that racetrack, at the track where the championship is decided this year, is something that no other team can say.  We have won a clutch race at Phoenix.  I think that is a big deal for us.  Hopefully we can pull it off again.”

It’s going to be interesting which combo wins, as all four combos have the potentials to be the next great tandem in NASCAR. 

 

 

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