Ryan Newman’s victory at Phoenix Raceway last Sunday came about in large part due to a call by crew chief Luke Lambert not to pit during the final caution of the race.
More importantly, it was Newman’s trust in Lambert’s decision that put him in a position to win.
“My thought was that four tires was definitely not the way to go and we should take two tires if anything,” said Newman. “Luke said no tires and I was good with it. I knew what he was thinking. I’ve been there before. I’ve watched it win races and I’ve watched it lose races. It could have gone either way with a different restart.”
In the pressure cooker environment of NASCAR, the importance of trust between a driver and crew chief is almost second to none. The trust to believe a crew chief’s call at a key moment in a race. The trust to know the feedback coming from behind the wheel is accurate. These are all things that develop over time.
Building that Trust
As drivers and crew chiefs are paired together, the meshing of their personalities and development of relationships must grow over time.
Fortunately, that relationship clicked right away for Newman and Lambert. A snowmobiling trip in Utah the start of the 2014 season was the initial catalyst for what continues to be a strong partnership today.
“Having a few years of working together has just strengthened that chemistry and made it to where we understand and can anticipate what each other are thinking,” said Lambert. “Particularly in the race, I feel like he understands that I trust what he is saying and I understand that he reciprocates that. That just makes it very easy for us to work together.”
For Matt Borland, who chiefs the No. 27 team, forging a strong partnership with Paul Menard is still a work in progress, given Borland’s short tenure at RCR thus far.
“It builds every week,” he said. “It just happens over time and it’s just one of those things that builds on itself and you hope it continues going in the right direction. At the end of the day it just takes experience and time together.”
Although they are continuing to build that relationship together, Menard looked at Borland’s history and success with Newman (the two won 13 races together at Penkse) and felt at ease right away. Still, that relationship ultimately has taken work from the outset to nurture.
“Matt’s experience speaks for itself, so right away it was easy for me to trust him,” said Menard. “During the off-season, we had several sit-down meetings where we just went through different scenarios on what each of us would do or react. I feel like we are on the same page on a lot of things already, and would possibly be even before a certain scenario happens.”
Testing trust when things don’t go well
While Lambert’s decision at Phoenix ultimately worked out in their favor, those gambles do not always pay off, which can test confidence between driver and crew chief.
No. 3 crew chief Slugger Labbe recalls an instance during last year’s October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he called for two tires during a pit stop that put Austin Dillon out front for a restart when most of the field opted for four fresh tires.
Coming back to green, one of those cars got overly aggressive and Dillon ended up with a wrecked race car, his season’s hopes hanging in the balance.
“That didn’t go well,” said Labbe. “That didn’t help the trust factor, but sometimes things don’t always go smoothly. It’s a 50-50 shot that it’s going to work. If it doesn’t work, it’s all about how you handle that situation.
“It’s really easy to be a Monday-morning crew chief, but when you’re sitting on the pit box you have about 30 to 45 seconds to make a decision,” he said. “One call like that can make or break you. Everything we do is right on the edge of success and failure. This sport is very rewarding and very cruel at the same time.”
Confidence is Key
Reflecting on the Phoenix victory, Newman was clear that his confidence in Luke was the key to their success.
“I’ve always said that confidence is more powerful than ability,” said Newman. “If you have the confidence, you can go out there and achieve anything. It doesn’t just stop with Luke, though. It’s all the guys on the team that give us the opportunity to be confident in what we do and to make the right decisions.”
And it’s that confidence within the No. 31 team that paved the way to Victory Lane.