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Two-tyre call was right — for wrong team

2 March 2010

Late in Sunday's Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, driver Jeff Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte put their heads together — and came up empty.

Gordon led the field to pit road on lap 230 during what turned out to be the final caution of the race. After a brief discussion of strategy before the stop, Gordon and Letarte opted for two tyres instead of four — and lost the race to team-mate Jimmie Johnson, who restarted with 34 laps left armed with new tyres on all four corners of his #48 Chevy.

On two tyres to Johnson's four, Gordon described himself as a “sitting duck.” He added that losing the lead to Johnson after the restart on lap 234 was “just a matter of time.”

After the race, crew chief Chad Knaus, who made the winning four-tyre call for Johnson, was charitable toward the team with whom he shares a massive shop on the Hendrick Motorsports campus in Concord, N.C. Knaus was particularly gracious toward his fellow crew chief.

“I didn't outsmart him,” Knaus said with a straight face. “He did not make the wrong call. There wasn't a wrong call to make. They came in first. They wanted to maintain track position because track position is so critical. Only way for us to beat them was to do something different. I didn't know they were taking two tyres. He didn't know we were taking four tyres.

“So, you know, I went with my plan because I thought that's what we needed to do, because I assumed a bunch of people were going to take two tyres.”

Excuse me. In one sense Knaus was right. Taking two tyres was not a wrong call—from the standpoint of the #48 team. If the object was to get Gordon to victory lane for the first time since April 2009 at Texas, however, it was a colossal mistake.

Look at the facts. Gordon had dominated the race up to the final pit stop. On equal tires, he was able to hold off Johnson lap after lap. Yes, track position was important, but there were only eleven cars on the lead lap when Kevin Conway's Ford slid into the turn two wall to cause the final caution.

Gordon and Letarte should have known Knaus invariably will take four tyres with more than 30 laps left in a race. Just listen:

“I felt very confident a lot of people were going to take two tyres,” Knaus said. “With the way the car was running — honestly the way that we typically run on two tyres — it wasn't even an option for me. I felt like if we got four tyres, we would be in a position because of the double-file restart that we would start in the first three rows and we would be OK. Fortunately enough, we were able to start in the second row. It worked out …

“With the amount of laps we had left, 30-plus laps, I was very comfortable taking four tyres. I felt like the people that took two tyres, their left-side tyres would deteriorate pretty quickly. So at that point I was committed to it.”

Under those circumstances, even with a premium on track position, Gordon and Letarte should have opted for four tyres. Instead, they brought a knife to a gunfight.

So concerned was the #24 team with beating the #48 out of the pits that it restarted the race with half the arsenal it needed to keep the lead.

Knaus, however, will be the last to say his team-mates made a wrong call. If similar circumstances arise again, he wants them to do the exact same thing.


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