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.

That envelope has gotten a whole lot smaller in the current Car of Tomorrow era, though, and Evern­ham’s type of innovation is a lot more difficult. Teams still tinker as much as they can, but the rewards are less and the penalties for getting caught are greater.

With so much else being equal now, at least among the big teams, the real difference makers are game planning and people skills. A crew chief who can get the most out of his driver, put together a talented and motivated crew, and then develop and execute an insightful and flexible strategy can enjoy a long and happy career.

And if he can’t excel at those things? Well, no doubt his owner already has some replacement candidates on speed-dial.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

More North American F1 races?

Construction is proceeding on the new Formula 1 track in Austin, Texas, with the inaugural F1 race scheduled for 2012. But one U.S. race might not be enough. The premier worldwide open wheel series is interested in a second American race. Talks have begun with investors about holding an F1 grand prix in New York as early as 2013. One proposal calls for running a street race along the banks of the Hudson River, using the waterfront and iconic Manhattan skyline as the backdrop.

Meanwhile, Mexico wants to bring F1 back after a nearly 20-year hiatus. The interest is thanks to Sergio Perez, the first Mexican Formula 1 driver since 1981. If a Mexico race is added to the schedule, it likely will be run at the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit, which hosted all of Mexico’s previous F1 races. The timing of the race would depend in part on how soon the course could be upgraded. Another option could be a new street circuit in Guadalajara.

IndyCar exposure

America’s open wheel series is looking to expand its borders, too. IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard says the sport’s long-term plan calls for a European swing. IndyCar is little-known across the pond right now, but Bernard noted that European television ratings for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 were up more than 10 percent over the 2010 race.

Another beneficiary of those ratings is the ABC television network. ABC and IndyCar have extended their long-running relationship, agreeing that the network will be the exclusive broadcast partner for the traditional Memorial Day race through 2018.

Carmaker title under wraps

Who’s winning the NASCAR manufacturers’ championship? Who knows? Manufacturer standings used to be displayed at the end of each race telecast, right after the driver points update. NASCAR still tallies automaker points, but now essentially ignores this contest. It shouldn’t. NASCAR fans are as committed to the cars as they are the drivers. I’m a Chevy gal and if my driver Jeff Gordon isn’t in a position to win, I pull for the Bowtie that has a chance to take the checkers. NASCAR has hitched its wagon to the cult of driver personality in recent years, but that obviously hasn’t stemmed the loss of fans. If NASCAR played up the manufacturers’ race, it would give auto fans something else to follow.

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