View from the Grandstand

Kay Bell | October 01, 2011

Crew chief shuffle

As Chase competition intensifies, leaders become an easy target on lagging teams

Hail to the chief? In NASCAR this season, it’s hailing on the chiefs.

In July alone, five Sprint Cup crew chiefs were fired. That’s about one of every eight full-time chiefs in the series, an amazing attrition rate by any standard. The victims of this midseason massacre were Brian Pattie (replaced by Jim Pohlman on Juan Pablo Montoya’s team); Pat Tryson (replaced by Chad Johnson on Martin Truex’s squad); Todd Berrier (replaced by Luke Lambert on Jeff Burton’s team); Greg Erwin (replaced by Matt Puccia on Greg Biffle’s team); and Mike Shiplett (replaced by Erwin on A.J. Allmendinger’s crew).

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are one of the few NASCAR teams that hasn’t been split.

The moves were made by large (Roush Fenway Racing/Biffle), mid-sized (Target Ganassi/Montoya) and small teams (Richard Petty Motor­sports/Allmendinger). But the motive behind each was the same: a last-ditch effort to boost a team into the Chase for the Championship and, if not, to start building for 2012.

At the time their crew chiefs were fired, none of those five teams had won in 2011 — and this in a season of true parity, with drivers like Trevor Bayne, David Ragan and Paul Menard all notching their first Sprint Cup victories and no single driver dominating the win column. Perhaps more important is all of those teams had hoped to contend for the championship, but no team was close to securing its spot in the expanded season-ending playoff.

In baseball, the adage goes, managers are hired to be fired, and frustrated owners dump the manager because they can’t get rid of all the players. So it is in NASCAR these days, too.

Most drivers, even the mediocre ones, cost too much to replace and, really, who would replace them, anyway? Over-the-wall crew members are often switched in and out, but those maneuvers rarely add up to much, unless, like Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus did last year, you switch out an entire team in the middle of a race.

That leaves owners with only one real option: Replace the crew chief and hope a change of philosophy, or at least personality, can somehow spark a struggling squad. Does it work? Usually not in the short term. None of the five teams involved in the chief firings experienced an immediate turnaround.

It’s not fair to judge a crew chief change on a short-term basis. Rebuilding — or even just perking up — a struggling team is a complex process. Any real payoff will come next year, after everyone has had a chance to regroup over the winter and put a new plan, and probably more new people, into place.

Exhibit A is Ragan’s UPS-­sponsored team, which went through two crew chiefs in 2010 before Roush Fenway Racing brought in Drew Blickensderfer, a proven crew chief and owner of NASCAR’s most “Scrabble-tastic” last name. He won multiple races helming Matt Kenseth’s team, but was let go after Kenseth missed the Chase in 2009. With Blickensderfer on board, Ragan finally found Victory Lane at Daytona this summer.

Blickensderfer is a hero now, but the hatchet will fall on his neck again, maybe sooner than later. That’s no knock on him; it’s just the cold, hard truth about a job that is without a doubt the most thankless, pressure-packed and complex in all of motorsports.

What’s really behind the spate of firings this summer is that the overall competition is closer now than at perhaps any time in Sprint Cup history. It is because NASCAR has reduced the so-called “gray area” in its technical regulations to the point where there is very little room left for crew chiefs to innovate.

As recently as a decade or two ago, clever crew chiefs could find little places on the racecar to tweak and gain a small but decisive — and temporary — advantage. No one did it better than Ray Evernham, who won three championships with Jeff Gordon thanks to his ability to push the envelope just a little further and more frequently than his competitors.