By admin | March 2, 2010
By Richard Allen
With just over 30 laps to go in the Shelby American 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway the yellow flag flew. A pit stop at that time would allow everyone to make it to the end of the race on fuel. The question for each crew chief and driver was how many tires they should take.
At the time of the caution Jeff Gordon held the lead. For that matter he had held the lead for most of the event and clearly had the best car there for the first three-fourths of the race. The decision his Steve Letarte led team had to make was whether to be assured of maintaining their track position by taking only two tires or risk falling back into the pack with a longer four tire stop.
As has been well documented by now, the #24 Hendrick Motorsports team opted to take two tires thinking there would be other cars to also take two tires. They believed those who chose four tires would not have enough time to work their way back through traffic.
The problem for Gordon and Letarte was that not enough other cars opted for two tires. Instead of being at the head of the field with a cushion of other cars with two new tires between their car and those with four new tires, they were at the front of the field with an entire lead lap contingent of cars on four new tires behind them.
Gordon’s HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson was among those to have four new tires and he was eventually able to put the fresh rubber to use as he went on to victory.
Many drivers would have huffed out of their cars at the end of the race and immediately thrown their crew chief under the figurative bus before storming off to a luxury motor coach parked in a fenced lot.
Instead, Gordon did his interviews and defended his crew chief’s late race call.
“If we won the race, we’d look like geniuses, Steve would have. The fact that we lost the race, now Chad (Knaus) looks like a genius,” Gordon said. “I talked to Steve briefly after the race. He’s pretty upset obviously. I think he just felt like more people were going to take two tires. Shoot, we were thinking for a split second to stay out.
“I felt like we needed to come in and get some tires, but I felt like two tires was the right call, too. We just needed them (Johnson‘s team) to take two. They did the opposite of us. That won the race for them.”
Gordon went on to put everything in proper perspective. He pointed out that his team had the best car and only lost because of a pit stop call. That is easier to fix than having a car that is not competitive in the first place.
Hindsight always offers 20-20 vision. Looking back, it is easy to say Letarte should have called for four tires. However, as Gordon said, had their strategy gone as planned it would be Letarte who looked like a genius.
The driver of the #24 car made the best choice of all after the race. By backing up his crew chief and team rather than blaming them for the loss Jeff Gordon demonstrated that he is a stand up guy.
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Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly columns appear in The Mountain Press and The Knoxville Journal.
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