One can make a case to where the driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR now are as important now than ever before. See, drivers these days aren’t as well versed in what goes into making a car than they used to be. Back in the 70s or 80s, a lot of the drivers were gearheads in a sense that they could work on their own cars too. Not that some drivers now aren’t, but most couldn’t tell you what goes into a car anymore. They just drive what they were given.
Crew chiefs have to have such a close relationship to know what their driver likes in the car because of that. The drivers can tell you what they need to help their car go faster on track and what areas of the track that they’re struggling in, but some struggle to tell their crew chiefs what changes to the car to make it do what they’re describing. “My car is loose in Turn 3 or my car is plowing in Turn 1 or 2.” That’s normal verbiage from a driver on his scanner to his crew chief during the race. But, they may not be able to tell you how to fix it to make it better.
The crew chief has to hear what the driver is assessing and know what ways to make the car better to drive. They have to be well versed and know the lingo with their driver to make the changes needed.
Without any practice for the final 32 races of 2020 and a majority of the races in 2021, you really have to be well versed with your driver to be sure you’re taking a car with you to the race track each week that has a shot to win. Then, you have to be able to communicate well over the course of the race to make changes as the day goes on.
Not many races now do you not touch the car all race. You have to make adjustments, even if they’re slight because the cars that aren’t perfect, well they’re adjusting and they can make enough adjustments that might make them better than you.
So, you’re racing the car you’re driving, the other cars on track to go along with the track and the conditions as well.
That’s why a driver-crew chief pairing is so integral in the sport to success. It’s not a fluke that the best drivers each season have the best crew chiefs for them. Why do the greats all have good sidekicks? Gordon-Evernham. Johnson-Knaus. Petty-Inman.
Well, a few years ago, we had Kyle Busch-Adam Stevens, Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers, Martin Truex Jr.-Cole Pearn, Brad Keselowski-Paul Wolfe, Joey Logano-Todd Gordon to go along with Johnson-Knaus.
Now, those relationships have almost all changed. Only Harvick and Childers are left. They’re the obvious top combo in NASCAR right now. But, who’s behind them?
We’re entering a new era of great tandems. Here’s my top five heading to 2021.
5. Brad Keselowski-Jeremy Bullins
I know the sample size is small, but the duo got to the Championship 4 together in their first year as a tandem. They finished second in the standings in fact and did so during a pandemic. Imagine what they can do in 2021 now with a full season worth of notes.
They won four times, had 13 top five finishes and 24 top 10’s in 36 races. This could be a rising duo if Keselowski is able to stay with Team Penske past 2021.
4. Chase Elliott-Alan Gustafson
This is now one of the longer tenured tandems in the sport now. Gustafson has been with Elliott since 2016 and they are coming off of a championship together a few weeks ago. Gustafson, has 31 wins in the sport with drivers like Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Elliott. He and Elliott in particular have won 11 times over the last three seasons and are just getting better and better. I wouldn’t be shocked if they move up on this list soon, but for now, they chime in at No. 4.
3. Joey Logano-Paul Wolfe
This is more based off of what could be to come for the future, but with how Logano and Paul Wolfe started 2020 and ended, this could be a tandem that has the possibility of being in the GOAT’s conversation.
In their first six races together, including the Clash and the Duels, they won half of them. When the pandemic started, they struggled since they had no practice together to know what each other needed. But, by mid summer, they had figured it out.
Logano, had 14 top 10 finishes, nine of which being in the top five, in his final 19 races of the season. He had four top three’s over the final five races at that.
Imagine what they can do together in 2021 with a full seasons worth of data too.
2. Denny Hamlin-Chris Gabehart
This was just what the doctor ordered for Hamlin. Following a winless season in 2018, Hamlin has won 13 times over the last two years including two straight Championship 4’s and two consecutive Daytona 500 triumphs too.
Hamlin, has had two straight career years and showing no signs of slowing down. The trust factor and how close this duo works is arguably best in the business right now. They get the true aspect of this being a team sport and they let each other work in their own arena’s and make each other better.
They give Harvick and Childers a run for their money as the best in the game.
1. Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers
Hard not to have them tops. Harvick and Childers started their relationship with five wins and a championship in 2014. They’ve only been great since. 35 wins in seven years together including 21 of those 35 coming in the last three years.
They won nine times in 2020 and are the definition of driver-crew chief greats.
If this was any other era, they’d have at least three championships right now and looked at in the same conversation as Gordon-Evernham.
Underrated One To Watch In 2021
Watch out for William Byron and Rudy Fugle next season. Byron, is starting to figure this out as he finally won in 2020 with a triumph in the Duels at Daytona as well as the Coke Zero Sugar 400. He also ended this past season with four top 10’s over the final six races and eight over the last 13.
Now, he’s getting his old crew chief back in Rudy Fugle. They won seven times in 23 races together in the Truck Series in 2016. Fugle, has 28 wins overall in Trucks competition and will get his Cup chance in 2021.
This could be a very underrated combo.