INDIANAPOLIS — A driver and his or her crew chief is like a head coach in football and their quarterback. It’s almost comparable to a marriage. The good ones are long lasting and can really separate themselves from the pack. Find the right combo and off you go. Find the wrong one and it quickly can become toxic. That in turn brings both sides down.
No one said either example is easy though. Marriage isn’t and neither is a driver-crew chief combo.
Gordon-Evernham. Johnson-Knaus. Petty-Inman. Why do you think all the greats in this sport all have good sidekicks? You don’t usually get one producing much success without the other. It’s not a fluke that the best drivers each season have the best crew chiefs for them.
That’s why a driver-crew chief pairing is so integral in the sport to success.
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.
It was working. These were some of the best combos all at one time than we’ve ever seen. Now, those relationships have almost all changed.
The sport keeps evolving is why.
One can make a case to where the driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR now are as important 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.
Communication. It’s why the earlier point about a marriage is so comparable to a driver and his crew chief or a quarterback and his coach. You have to have a way to communicate effectively with one another.
How many marriages breakdown because of this? It’s the No. 1 cause good or bad to most things on this earth.
That’s why Kyle Larson and new crew chief last year in Cliff Daniels clicked so well. Daniels, went to school and learned what his driver liked in order for him to communicate with him.
Larson’s championship last year was a direct result to Daniels’ eagerness to learn Kyle Larson. In order for Daniels and Larson to click, Daniels went to school — dirt racing school.
He was an asphalt guy by nature but Larson is a short track dirt guy. In order to learn what his driver would need on a Cup car, he first had to learn what makes him click on dirt.
But, in order to go to school, he first had to have a school to go to. Larson, had to get clearance from Hendrick to race on dirt. That’s something Mr. H wasn’t to keen on for his drivers doing in the past. In fact, Larson met with Jeff Gordon before he even got into the sport on potentially joining Hendrick Motorsports around a decade ago.
Larson, a hot shoe dirt racer, was looking to make a jump to stock cars. He visited all the North Carolina shops and had a meeting at HMS with Gordon. The first thing Gordon told him?
Transition away from dirt.
Larson felt defeated. Most owners didn’t want him racing on that surface away from Cup due to the potential dangers. The ones that didn’t care wanted him to bring a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He didn’t have money. He didn’t want to give up dirt either.
Chip Ganassi obliged to keeping the dirt extra curricular activities alive but also didn’t require him bring money.
Fast forward to know – Larson’s a champion, still racing on dirt and grew up learning NASCAR on Ganassi’s dime not Hendrick’s.
So, why the change in philosophies to allow Larson to race on dirt?
Larson asked and he did so while shaking in fear at the answer he’d hear after. See, Larson used a racial slur which cost him his job and all of his sponsors on Easter Night 2020. He rebuilt his image and won 46 times on the national dirt scene in the process.
Hendrick offered to sign him to his NASCAR team for 2021. The thing is, Larson knew he didn’t have much leverage in any negotiations. I mean, what other options would he have and for what better team?
He asked anyways.
“Yeah, you know, when you talk to a driver and you know in his heart that it’s really important to him, and I told him, I said, Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. He said, It makes me better. It keeps me sharp. He said, I think it helps me in the Cup car. So I just agreed to let him do it,” Hendrick said.
“You know, of course you have reservations, but he convinced me he wasn’t going to get hurt. I’m going to hold him to that.
“Well, you know, he agreed. We talked about it. He said, When we get in the playoffs, I’m going to back off, and he did. I think his focus was he wants to win races. He wants to — the Cup deal is his main job, and he knows that.
“He wants to win every race.
“He convinced me, and I think Cliff and I talked about it. And we talked to him about it, and we said, Now, we don’t want you getting in late in the middle of the night to get in a Cup car. If you want to run during the week, you can do that.
“It all worked out.”
So, Daniels went to school to learn his new driver and what makes him so good. To do so, you have to witness his greatness on dirt and hope to apply that to asphalt.
“The first thing that I would say, he (Larson) grew up dirt racing out west. I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast. You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing,” Daniels said.
“The connection that we had was our passion for racing, so yes, I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast, very specific types of racing, very specific way that you progress through the different series. So that was what I was accustomed to.
“Then getting to know him, there was this entire different world of dirt racing that I had really only had small exposure to, some friends in college, maybe some friends in high school a little bit that I kind of learned there, but I took it upon myself to consider myself the weak link between the two of us and that I needed to learn the discipline of dirt racing and get to know Kevin Rumley that was his late model crew chief, get to know Paul Silva, his sprint car crew chief, which I’m very thankful I got to know both of those guys.
“I went to late model races, I went to midget races, I went to sprint car races just to learn that discipline to understand the language that they speak and to understand when he says that racing three or four nights a week makes him better, what does that mean? What does that look like?
“I know Mr. H talked about that having him not race during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week, and when we won our — we were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row. He was racing two or three nights a week then, and I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.
“And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.
“Even if we had Cup practice and Cup qualifying, I would not have seen Kyle Larson on the front row of some race getting beat by anybody that he could then tell me, Hey, man, when this guy beat me, this is what I did wrong, and I could see this playing out in a Cup race or sprint race or late model race or whatever.
“That perspective for me taught me a lot so that when we talked during the week of our approach for a Cup race, not only the Cup race in its entirety, but like, Hey, man, how do you win the last restart? How do you set up a guy to pass for the win, whether it’s at the end of a playoff race or not, championship race or not, how do you position yourself? How do I make adjustments to the car? How does he see what he needs to see? That meant so much to me throughout the year.
“I know it did to him. I don’t know that he recognized it at first, that I was learning that much from him; but later in the year, especially in the playoffs, he knew the page that I was on, kind of learning from him and, again, trying to understand that world and understand him more, that I could put underneath of him what he needed to go get it done.
“We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense.
“All of that — I know I’m rambling a bit, but all of that led us to that final pit stop, those final adjustments to get it done.”
This is the new way to get it done so the old way essentially is out. It’s constantly evolving and something to evolve, you need a new voice.
A new way to practice. A new way to qualify. A new car. Limited track time. Nothing is the same now than it was two years ago. That’s why we’ve seen so much changeover in recent years. We have just five driver-crew chief pairings left in the Cup Series that was around in 2019.
Chase Elliott-Alan Gustafson
Alex Bowman-Greg Ives
Denny Hamlin-Chris Gabehart
Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.-Brian Pattie
That’s it. That’s the list.
I mean between the 2019 and 2020 season, Penske swapped out all three driver-crew chief combos. Entering 2022, 2 of the 3 are different again from 2021.
Also, if you take the driver-crew chief list from just last year’s Daytona 500 even and look at the one now, one month from the next Daytona 500, only 17 pairings are left out of 44 entries on that list.
All signs point to all four HMS and JGR each remaining status quo. Pattie should remain with Stenhouse Jr. SHR announced their plans with Harvick-Childers continuing and the same with two of his three teammates but the other in Aric Almirola gets Drew Blickensderfer who moves over from Front Row Motorsports. In return, FRM signed Blake Harris from JGR to quarterback Michael McDowell’s team.
23XI Racing removed the interim tag from Bootie Barker who initially was Chris Wheeler to start 2021 off with and signed Billy Scott to reunite him with Kurt Busch. Brad Keselowski took Busch’s crew chief last year in Matt McCall to RFK Racing.
Jonathan Hassler replaces the retired Todd Gordon on Ryan Blaney’s side at Team Penske while Austin Cindric now gets paired with Keselowski’s crew chief Jeremy Bullins.
Erik Jones gets Dave Elenz who replaces Jerry Baxter as his teammate Ty Dillon is paired with first year crew chief Jerame Donley.
That’s the nature of the business now and I think it’s always going to be this way moving forward.