MARTINSVILLE, Va. _ In the first five races of the season, it seems Tony Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb have opted for a different strategy than that than the rest of the field. Running at the front nearly every week, the No. 14 team has struggled to capitalize on its strong performances and varying strategies to find Victory Lane.
After dominating the race in Las Vegas, a pit road penalty mired it deep in the field. On the final caution, Grubb called for two tires, gained the lead and clean air with one pit stop remaining. Pulling away with the final stops approaching, it was clear the strategy would backfire if the race went green.
With no caution in the closing laps, the team was forced to take four tires as the leaders took only two. In the end, Carl Edwards stood in Victory Lane and Stewart finished a disappointing second.
The foiled strategy was the second time in as many weeks for Stewart and Grubb.
In Phoenix, the pair also took two tires late in the race under green flag stops to gain the lead and pull away. When a caution flew a handful of laps later, the field caught up and Stewart’s two tire advantage quickly turned to disadvantage as he fell to seventh by the time the checkered flag flew.
Last week in California, Stewart and Grubb again used a different strategy than the field when they did not pit under the first caution of the day – the only lead lap car to do so – to gain the lead. Only six laps after his previous stop, the move worked out. Stewart was able to gain the lead and battle for the top spot with Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman for the next 70 laps.
In the closing laps, the No. 14 stuck with the field and stayed out with the majority of the leaders on the last caution of the day. On the restart, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch battled for the win, as Stewart fell back from third to 13th in the last nine laps.
While it appears as if they have gambled on more than one occasion, Grubb refuses to admit their team has taken any risks and sticks by his decisions.
“We haven’t taken any risks this year except for Phoenix, that was the one risk we’ve made,” Grubb said. “Seven people did the exact same thing in California, so what was different about that? That’s a quarter of the field.”
Stewart on the other hand, believes the team should have pitted late last week. Instead of contending for the win, they struggled with a loose race car and finished 13th.
“We stayed out when we probably needed to come in and get tires to try to make it better,” Stewart said. “We were hanging on to third when the caution came out as it was. We just kind of backed ourselves in a corner.”
The majority of the strategy calls, Grubb explained, are made on the fly and in the heat of the moment on the pit box, not planned out in advance. Depending on the competition and their strategy, Grubb and Stewart evaluate their options and make the call.
“I’d say it’s 95 percent mine, five percent his,” Grubb said of the decision making process. “If he gives me the feedback and the five percent I need to have to make my decision, the rest of it is all mine because I know what is going on with everybody and their position on the race track.”
However, it is not always the competition that determines pit strategy throughout the race; instead it can be caused by problems in the pits. The penalty in Las Vegas forced the team into taking two tires to regain the lost track position. When the final stop of the day came under green, the strategy backfired. Slow stops and uncertainty over the amount of fuel in the tank can also determine the strategy throughout the race.
“If you have a problem, it definitely changes what you have to do to make up for it,” Grubb said. “The [new fueling] system is a very badly designed system, and it’s going to have problems. When you have a problem on a pit stop it makes you have to adjust the rest of your race to make up for it.”
Teammate Ryan Newman does not see the Stewart-Haas group taking too many risks, instead, simply using all of their options.
“I don’t think we have taken gambles on pit road; I think we have taken options,” he said. “I think that we’ve taken two tires when other guys have taken four. To me, a gamble is when you go out there and you say ‘man, we might make it on fuel so we are going to stay out.’ We haven’t done that with our team. (Tony) Stewart has done it a couple of times but we haven’t done that. So I don’t necessarily agree with the word gamble…we’ve put ourselves in the option of track position I’d say more so than four tires and that, I think, has helped us at times.”
Just because Stewart and Grubb have chosen to make different calls than some of the front-runners does not mean they are necessarily they are making the wrong calls. A turn of luck here, a caution-free run there and the No. 14 team could be sitting pretty with a few wins five races into the season.