The remaining two contenders for the Sprint Cup championship have very different track records at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the facility where this year's title will ultimately be decided. But the crew chiefs for Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart each will draw his strategy from the same place -- last year's event at the 1.5-mile oval in South Florida.
Homestead is statistically Edwards' best track, a place where he's won twice and has an average finish better than any other driver. Stewart has won twice there, too, but well before a once-flat track was reconfigured with progressive banking to better suit stock cars. Although Stewart's average finish at Homestead is 12.4, crew chief Darian Grubb will look to an intermediate-track setup that netted an eighth-place result there in 2010.
"It's actually a good thing for us that we did run good there last year, because that's a very similar setup to what we've run really good with at the mile-and-a-halfs this year," Grubb said Tuesday on a conference call. "We kind of hit on that setup at the end of last year, and we've been kind of fine-tuning it ever since. We feel like we should be faster than we were last year with that. We felt like we definitely had a top-five car, and the way that's worked out this year at Vegas and Texas and all the other tracks that are fairly similar, we think we can take a lot of that data over to Homestead and have a good year."
Stewart has won four times in this Chase, yet he enters the finale three points behind Edwards in the championship standings. No other drivers are mathematically eligible for the title. Edwards hasn't finished worse than eighth at Homestead since his rookie year, and crew chief Bob Osborne will look to those past performances -- particularly a victory last November -- as he prepares the No. 99 car for this season's finale.
"I think all of it is relatable, for sure," Osborne said Tuesday. "Definitely, last year's race setup is going to apply directly to this year for us. We plan on starting right where we left off, setup-wise, and trying to improve that setup for this race at Homestead."
Crew chiefs at NASCAR's highest level are under pressure every week, in both preparing race cars that must perform within fractions of a second of one another, but also in making pit-road calls that can win or lose a race. That much was evident last year, when Denny Hamlin's crew chief decided to stop for fuel in the penultimate race at Phoenix where Jimmie Johnson stretched his tank to the end, keeping the driver of the No. 48 car close enough to overtake Hamlin for the championship the next week. Crew chief decisions have played a role in shaping this year's Chase as well -- a final adjustment didn't take as well as Grubb had hoped last week at Phoenix, where Stewart finished third despite leading the most laps in the race, and Edwards salvaged top-10 finishes at Kansas and Martinsville out of cars that were a handful at the start of each event.
With so much at stake, and so few points separating the two drivers, and Edwards and Stewart essentially shadowing one another the past few weeks, clearly a crew chief's margin for error has dropped to zero. "Coming up with a top-10 or top-five finish is not going to cut it, for sure," Osborne said.
That said, though, neither driver can finish any worse than second, and only winning the race will guarantee either Edwards or Stewart the championship regardless of what the other team does. In some ways, that simplifies things -- both crew chiefs know that it may take winning the race to also win the title. Grubb plans to treat it like another Sunday on top of the pit box.
"It's about the same as it is every other week, honestly," Grubb said. "We go out there, we want to have the best setup we possibly can have, and also have the adaptability to it, to where if something goes different with the track conditions or something, we have to be able to adjust to those conditions as the race goes on, and make sure the car is fast enough all day long regardless of the situation we're put in. We go down there just like we do every week, shoot to be the fastest car off the truck, the fastest car in qualifying, and the fastest car in the race. The pressure is the same. This week, there's a little more on the line, but the majority of that we just put on the driver's shoulders, because we still do the same job in the pits every week."
For the crew chiefs, past races at Homestead provide the baseline. A pair of practice sessions on Friday will be when they will fine-tune those setups to the specific conditions of the weekend.
"The big thing there is really using the practice sessions we have to try to improve the setup and the book of notes, so to speak," Osborne said. "We're not going to go there and just rest on our notebook. We're going to go there and flog the race car to try and improve it, and see what we can come out of that practice sessions [with] that is better than when we started. I think if we stay true to that, and really push the race car during those practice sessions, we'll have a better package than when we started, and it should be a good package for the race."
In a way, that's what Grubb has been doing for the whole latter third of this season. While Edwards has been the picture of consistency all year, leading the points for 21 weeks and finishing no worse than 11th since Michigan in late August, Stewart's program has been transformed from an outfit in danger of missing the Chase to one that is now a serious threat to win it.
"I think a lot of it is just continuing to build on that notebook that we've been building for three years now," Grubb said. "We've gotten better at some tracks, we've gotten worse at some tracks with things we're trying. So a lot of those things, it's just stacked up to where we've had the good data that we need to have for these last 10 races, and being able to apply them to the race track. Everybody's just digging in a little bit deeper and working a little bit harder trying to find whatever's left out there for performance, because the competition level is so high, you have to be on top of the game. You can't settle on what you were doing before and think you're going to be competitive. You have to progress every week."
That will be the goal Sunday as well. And afterward? Grubb has faced questions about his job status for 2012 given that he and Stewart endured a rocky run-up to the Chase, and his Stewart-Haas team has had a competition director position open for half the year. Tuesday, Grubb was noncommittal.
"We'll kind of leave that to after Sunday," he said. "We'll kind of figure out what's going to happen there. Our goal is to win the championship, and we'll decide everything else after that."