Could it really be that there might be a new sheriff in the Sprint Cup series garage?
In the wake of Sunday's victory by Denny Hamlin at Texas Motor Speedway, Mike Ford sure sounded as if he's ready for a crew-chief showdown with Chad Knaus. In fact, it could be argued that the respective teams they lead had one earlier in the day at TMS -- and that the No. 48 team blinked first and perhaps even repeatedly.
Before the day was done, the No. 11 pit crew of Hamlin and Ford not only had outperformed the No. 48 crew of four-time defending champion driver Jimmie Johnson and Knaus, it had run them out of their pit stall.
The gamesmanship started long before the green flag dropped Sunday. Johnson began the weekend leading the Chase, with Hamlin in close pursuit, behind by only 14 points. When Johnson qualified better than Hamlin and was, as a result, able to choose his pit stall for the race first, Ford was prepared to fire the first effective shot in what proved to be a brilliant psychological battle with the 48 guys.
Ford took note of which pit stall Knaus selected -- and when his turn to pick came, he picked the one right in front of them. It was payback, he said later, for Knaus pulling the same stunt on his team earlier in the Chase at Kansas. Ford made no secret throughout the race of the fact that it was his goal not only to box in Johnson on pit stops but also to intimidate the No. 48 pit crew into making uncharacteristic mistakes.
"You know, that has raised a lot of controversy," Ford said. "But I think you need to look back to Kansas and the usual courtesy was thrown out the window."
Ford's forward thinking
Ford said it was an easy choice to pick the pit stall directly in front of Johnson when it finally came time for him to choose, considering Hamlin did not qualify well. He started 30th, on the outside of Row 15.
"When it was time to choose pits, that one was an option. I felt like that was our best option," Ford said. "You take the Chase hat off and you say, 'What's going to be best for our race team?' I felt like we could outrun those guys all day, and we were able to."
They ran the 48 pit crew right out of the track, as Knaus eventually made the call to replace his struggling crew with the suddenly available pit crew that normally works for the No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon. That Hendrick Motorsports crew came available when Gordon got wrecked out of the event by Jeff Burton during a caution on Lap 192.
It was a surprising move ordered by Knaus that some have interpreted as a crack in the foundation of the 48 operation. Ford, at least, certainly seemed to see it that way and did not mind saying so during the post-race news conference.
"As far as watching what happened next to us, I'll be honest with you: I stayed focused on what we needed to do," Ford said. "We did see all that go on, saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard -- and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes. So I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention. That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so.
"We played our game. I stayed focused on what we needed to do. ... You know that's possible going in, and you watch it [happening], so I think it was kind of a desperation move. But it's something that I won't say that race team that Jimmie, Chad and Rick [Hendrick] needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team."
The amusing thing about Ford's bravado following Sunday's smashing success for his team is that he's usually the mild-mannered one trying to keep his driver's ego -- and mouth -- in check.
But there was Ford, not Hamlin, sitting at the victor's podium sporting a Texas-sized cowboy hat and firing off barbs pointed squarely in the direction of the guys he figures they still have to beat in each of the final two races of the season. By virtue of his victory -- Hamlin's series-high eighth of the year -- they'll carry a 33-point lead over Johnson heading into this Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. The capable No. 29 Chevrolet team of Kevin Harvick lurks in third, just 59 points behind Hamlin.
Make no mistake, however. Hamlin and Ford are literally in the driver's seat together with their pit crew as this one winds down. It now is their championship to win -- or lose.
Of Sunday's winning effort, Hamlin said: "Mike put a plan together, and we never panicked. We just executed the plan."
Ford said he has been willing all season to battle with the No. 48 team, and he's not about to back off now. The pedal is to the medal, the guns are out of the holsters in the O.K. Corral and all that good stuff -- with Knaus and Johnson and, well, who knows which pit crew lining up at one end to face Ford and his gang at the other.
Ford likes his chances.
"Guys have tiptoed around them," Ford said. "You've watched them play mind games with people in the past, and I'm completely immune to that. I could care less. I'll be right in their face saying so, it doesn't matter.
"I think our race team is better than their race team, and I'm not going to tiptoe around them because of where they're at. I'm going to do what it's going to require for us to win a championship, to beat them. Not that I'm playing dirty by any means, but take what's ours, and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it."
Knaus, you have been warned. And at least for now, you have flinched first.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.