A look at the driver-crew chief combos for this year’s Cup Series Championship 4 at Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ — 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. Really, the turnover between drivers and their crew chiefs has changed a lot since the start of the 2019 season. Just six cars have the same driver and crew chief in them from the start of the 2019 season to the end of the 2021. Kurt Busch and Matt McCall (Ganassi), Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson (Hendrick), Alex Bowman and Greg Ives (Hendrick), Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart (JGR), Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers (SHR) and Michael McDowell and Drew Blickensderger (Front Row) are the only ones left.

There’s a reason why two of them are in the Championship 4 for a second straight year and have all combined to win the last three Daytona 500’s.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Crew Chief Corner: Alan Gustafson  

Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Hendrick Motorsport’s crew chief in 2005, Alan Gustafson has proven that he is one of the best in the sport. Now the 2020 series crew chief champion has the chance to become the 11th different crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series to win back-to-back titles and the 16th to win multiple titles all-time. If Gustafson and the No. 9 team pull off consecutive titles in the NASCAR Cup Series, he would join fellow crew chiefs Dale Inman, Chad Knaus, Kirk Shelmerdine, Ray Evernham, Bud Moore, Lee Petty, Andy Petree, Herb Nab, Jake Elder and Carl Kiekhaefer in accomplishing the feat.

Crew Chiefs with Multiple Championships (1949-2020)
Rank No. of Titles Crew Chiefs Years
1 8 Dale Inman 1964, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ’79, ’84
2 7 Chad Knaus 2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13, ’16
3 4 Kirk Shelmerdine 1986, ’87, ’90, ’91
4 3 Ray Evernham 1995, ’97, ’98
Bud Moore 1957, ’62, ’63
Lee Petty 1954, ’58, ’59
7 2 Adam Stevens 2019, ’15
Greg Zipadelli 2002, ’05
Andy Petree 1993, ’94
Jeff Hammond 1982, ’85
Tim Brewer 1978, ’81
Herb Nab 1976, ’77
Jake Elder 1968, ’69
Carl Kiekhaefer 1955, ’56
Smokey Yunick 1951, ’53
* 15 total multiple NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief champions

During his 17 seasons of full-time competition, Gustafson has worked with five different drivers: Kyle Busch (2005-2007), Casey Mears (2008), Mark Martin (2009, 2010), Jeff Gordon (2011-2015) and Chase Elliott (2016-Present). And during those 17 seasons he led his drivers to 14 Playoff appearances and to wins in 13 of the 17 seasons. This weekend at Phoenix will mark his third appearance in the Championship 4 Round, his first appearance was with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon in 2015 when they finished the season third in points.

The Elliott-Gustafson pair has combined for the following achievements in 215 NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2016:

  • 13 wins
  • 73 top fives
  • 116 top 10s
  • 3,949 laps led
  • 9 poles
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Championship (2020)
  • Two NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances (2020, 2021)
  • Six consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2016-2021)

The two will look to capture their second NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Last season, Gustafson became the 41st different crew chief in the series with a championship.


KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Crew Chief Corner: Cliff Daniels

Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Hendrick Motorsport’s crew chief in 2019, Cliff Daniels has shown that he is one of the rising stars in the sport. During his two seasons of full-time competition, Daniels has worked with three different drivers: Jimmie Johnson (2020), Justin Allgaier (2020) and Kyle Larson (2021). But it wasn’t until this season he earned a spot in the Playoffs and won nine races. This weekend at Phoenix will mark his first appearance in the Championship 4, his previous best finish in the final Cup standings was 18th with driver Jimmie Johnson in 2020.

The Larson-Daniel pair has combined for the following achievements in 35 NASCAR Cup Series races together:

  • 9 wins
  • 19 top fives
  • 25 top 10s
  • 2,474 laps led
  • 1 pole
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearance (2021)
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2021)

The two will look to capture their first NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If they accomplish the feat, Daniels will become the 42nd different crew chief in the series with a championship.



CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – MAY 17: #11: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Express and Christopher Gabehart during the All-Star at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2019 in Charlotte Motor Speedway, United States of America. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade / NKP / LAT Images)

Crew Chief Corner: Chris Gabehart

The powerful duo of driver Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart are the only Championship 4 team entered this weekend that has made the Playoffs’ final round the last three consecutive seasons (2019-2021), proving they are a force to be reckoned with.

Since joining forces with Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team, Gabehart has led the crew to 15 wins, including two Daytona 500 victories (2019, 2020), three Playoff appearances and three Championship 4 appearances (2019, 2020, 2021).

The Hamlin-Gabehart pair have combined for the following achievements in 104 NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2017:

  • 15 wins
  • 54 top fives
  • 68 top 10s
  • 3,376 laps led
  • 3 poles
  • Three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances (2019, 2020, 2021)
  • Three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2019, 2020, 2021)

Under Gabehart’s leadership this season, Hamlin has earned 18 top fives, 24 top 10s and has hoisted two trophies (Darlington, Las Vegas) in Victory Lane.

If Hamlin and Gabehart win the championship this season, Gabehart will become the 42nd different crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series to win a title.



AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Crew Chief Corner: James Small

Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief in 2017, James Small has proven that he is one of the rising stars in the sport to keep an eye on. He made his Cup debut with Erik Jones running two races in 2017 before moving the No. 19 and driver Martin Truex Jr. in 2020. During his two seasons of full-time competition (2020, 2021) with Truex the pair have made 70 starts posting five wins and have qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in consecutive seasons (2020-21). This is the first year Small has earned a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Round; his previous best final Cup standings finish was seventh in 2020.

The Truex-Small pair has combined for the following achievements in 70 NASCAR Cup Series races together:

  • 5 wins
  • 25 top fives
  • 41 top 10s
  • 1,690 laps led
  • 0 poles
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearance (2021)
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2021)

Small will look to capture his first NASCAR Cup Series championship this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If he accomplishes the feat, Daniels will become the 42nd different crew chief in the series with a championship.

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