It seems recently that you have been reluctant to adjust the car due to impressive lap time data, but Jeff has pressured you into making a slight adjustment, an adjustment that several times has robbed you of the speed you had before the pit stop. Do you sometimes get frustrated with Jeff when he places emphasis on making the car more comfortable to drive at the risk of losing speed?
SL: I don't get frustrated, no, because that's Jeff's job to say what he thinks he needs and he doesn't have the lap times to measure himself against. His only judgment can come from his speed relative to the guy behind him and the guy in front.
I think what happens is that the people listening in to us get frustrated, so if they hear Jeff emphatically saying the car has to do this, has to be like that, has to be improved, and so on, they worry that he's giving up, or not giving 100 percent. Well I can tell you, that's just Jeff's communication style. I hear everything he says, I sift through all the data of lap times, car performance, running position and then decide how much we need to adjust on the car.
We can't blindly listen to the driver. As great as Jeff is, he only has one piece of the puzzle in front of him. As a driver, he's grown up knowing that the better a car drives, the faster it goes, and his job is to give us feedback to make the car better. With the old car, when it drove good, we were fast – crazy-fast. But this car is very different: He didn't like how the Vegas car drove, how the Texas or Phoenix cars drove, and they were all fast enough to win the race.
So now, with this car, he has programmed himself to give me all the information and then listen to us on how successfully we're running. Richmond in the spring was the perfect example; we were leading by six or seven seconds and he told me it was the worst car he'd ever had at Richmond! He couldn't believe we were leading, he had no idea why we were leading, and I just had to politely say, “That's great information, no problem, keep driving it – and I'm not making any changes!” It's fine if he disagrees. If Jeff's opinion and Jeff's calls for the changes were that set in stone, you wouldn't need crew chiefs. My job is to take the driver's opinions and compare it with the other tools and information I have on hand and decide what we react to and how we react to it.
A couple months ago, you stated in an answer that traditionally the No. 24 team starts the year off strong and then notoriously begins to fade near the end of the season. Seeing as how the most crucial element of the season is in the final 10 races; this notorious trend will no doubt keep you and the team off of the championship podium. What have you been doing this season as a team to ensure that this detrimental pattern does not repeat itself in 2010 and in future seasons?
SL: It was very important to see how we got into the pattern we did, and we had to break our own mold and try something different. So our approach all summer long shifted in a major way. The reason we're not picked to run well in the Chase is because we didn't end the regular season with 10 top fives leading up to the Chase. The reason for that is because we went to the racetrack every week with experimental setups, trying to be a dominant car. We could go with a baseline setup and run in the top five or 10 every week, but that's not gaining any sort of speed for the second half of the year.
Over time, that setup will become more and more outdated, and we'll fall into our traditional curve of start strong, maintain in the middle, end slow. Our goal is to not do that this year. We've done that by staying rested and staying aggressive, and while we haven't got the wins to back up the hard work we've put in, the first race at Loudon showed that when the points were on the line, we instantly contended for a top five. If we continue that performance through the Chase, we'll have a good end to the season.
I waited for the first 26 races to be out of the way before asking this. Have you saved yourself for the Chase this year?
SL: Yes. We don't save equipment – we'll go out and try to win races – but without a doubt, we've been planning for the Chase for the last eight or 10 weeks. There have been cars we've run very successfully in the races leading up to it that we have put aside to save for the Chase. We've tried not to work ourselves to the bone in the shop, burning ourselves out in July and August, because when it comes down to it, 70 days from when you leave Richmond, someone will be crowned champion and you have to pretty much work all 70 and see how good you can be.
The fact that other teams have been doing the same thing – experimenting over that last part of the summer – means that no one quite knows where they are when we start the Chase. Everyone can say they've been trying their hardest all summer long, but you also know there have been other things being tried out. It may not have finished this way, but I looked up at one point during the Loudon race, and nine of the first 10 were Chase cars, and I don't find that a coincidence or by chance. I think that's how it's going to be for the rest of the Chase, and I'll be shocked if at least eight or nine of the 10 Chase races aren't won by Chase drivers. The reason these 12 teams are there is because they had 26 races to prove they're the best, and, short of Jamie McMurray perhaps, your winners will come from those top 12.
I guess you're always friends and rivals with the 48, but once Jimmie and Jeff were fairly comfortably into the top 12, did you start sharing even more data, and at what point do you start keeping information to yourselves? At what point does the balance swing from friendly rivalry to just rivalry? Like, now – at the start of the Chase?
SL: Ah, of course, the regular information-sharing question, although with an interesting twist. I must state again, there is no way to share more or share less information. The systems we have bred here at Hendrick Motorsports are company-wide systems. Even where we store our information is open to every crew chief here in the company. It's down to what crew chiefs are willing to go look for. If I wanted to withhold information, I wouldn't even know where to put it. My notebooks, my computer, my database, our hard drives – they're all unlocked and open for everyone. And once we're into the Chase doesn't affect that at all. Similarly, our relationship with Stewart-Haas hasn't changed at all, either. All year long, we open our information up to Tony's boys. The difference with them is that if we find something in the middle of practice that makes the 24 go faster, we'll make sure we go out of our way to tell the 48, whereas we expect the 14 to look into our notes and find it themselves. That's the difference between being a team that has our technical backing, and being a teammate.
Please tell me that Jeff's result at Richmond isn't a guide to how he'll perform in the Chase, relative to the 48. Even if you don't win the Cup, I want you to put Jeff ahead of Jimmie. I know, it's a tough task, but the 24 has just as many Cups in the trophy room.
SL:I'll be honest Andrew, our result at Richmond was down to poor qualifying. There were only three cautions and we had to start Lucky Dog at the tail end of the field on the last restart. From there, we drove all the way to 12th. I really think if there'd been one more caution in that last run, we'd have ended third or fourth: We had a fabulous racecar and just didn't execute well enough at the start of the weekend and through qualifying. I can promise you that how we ran at Richmond is definitely not how we expect to run in the Chase. While we got off to an OK start at Loudon, by no means are we happy with sixth, or think that a series of fifth- or sixth-place finishes will be enough to win the championship.
Dover this weekend is our weakest track, and we want to go there and make a statement, and then we can't wait to get to Kansas, California, Martinsville, etc. While in the past they weren't our best, I can't think of better ones to go to this year. If you go back through the season and look at our performances through the season at tracks similar – or the same – as the ones coming up, then we're feeling positive. The ones we have to work on are Dover and Charlotte, so we'll be open-minded about making changes there. But Texas and Phoenix used to be the worst for the 24 car, and I can't think of two better races for us than those races earlier this year. And that's not by coincidence: We've known we had to get better there and we put a tremendous amount of effort in.