Driver crew chief pairings as important now as ever before, a detailed look here

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 in a sense. 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 also 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.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 20: (l-R)Greg Ives, crew chief of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, and Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stand on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 20, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Without any practice for the final 32 races of 2020 and a majority of the races in 2021, and less than an hour at each race this year, 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.

That’s one success story. So is Alex Bowman with Greg Ives and their Vegas win this past spring.

With Bowman running fourth in March and a yellow with three laps-to-go, he wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

“I’ve been prepared since 2020 for this one,” Ives said.

“Another late caution, Alex was fast. Him and Ryan Blaney were having a good battle. Caution comes out late, and we all elect to pit. Some guys stayed out. We made the wrong call. I made the wrong call.

“We’ve talked about this redemption for a long time. It’s something that never goes away. I may get the years messed up, the time messed up, but I know 10 years from now it’s going to be the same. I made a bad call, redeemed myself a couple years later on it.

“We talked about it a little bit on the radio. Like Alex says, I’m a little bit of a wriggler. This is what we talked about. We didn’t really want to say exactly what we wanted to do, but I feel like him in the car wanted us to stay out, me thinking everybody was going to come down and at least take two tires, and ultimately that was the right call.

“I got lucky maybe with that call and lucky that we have Alex driving that thing, picking up on the restarts. He had a lot of confidence on restarts all day. It doesn’t come down to the last restart and say, Yeah, I got confidence now. It comes down to every restart he was confident in the race car, in what he was capable of, and slowly got us to the point where two tires he wasn’t going to lose.”

Ives and Bowman knew via Kyle Larson’s win a week prior that they’d take two tires. He knew the three in front would likely take four. So, why not gamble?

“Ultimately when it came out that way, you try to figure out who you can work with and who you can’t,” Ives said. “Ultimately for me it was the front row. If we didn’t get the front row, we weren’t going to win the thing. We might have finished 2nd to 20th. That was my mindset. It wasn’t planned. We don’t have time to plan that well for all that.

“Ultimately I know the situation, the 5, how Cliff thinks. Like I said, we work together. He’s got a win. He’s going to gamble. He’s going to either take two tires or stay out. He pitted. I knew two tires were coming. Same with Rudy. Trying to win the race. We have great cars. We have the speed capable of giving us a front row and winning the thing.

“Ultimately, like I said, we came out on top, but there was no plan between all of us, that’s for sure.”

Bowman, prevailed by just .178-seconds in what was the third closest finish in Vegas history over Larson.

This thing was so fast all day. Just never really had the track position we needed to show it,” Bowman said. “Man, what a call by (crew chief) Greg Ives and the guys to take two (tires) there. Obviously it paid off.

This was a similar circumstance to their Richmond win together in the spring of 2021.

Bowman led exactly 11 laps in the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Richmond Raceway. They were the most important ones though too. Bowman, had help via a late race caution when Kevin Harvick got into the Turn 1 SAFER barrier on Lap 382 of 400 to bring out the final caution. The drivers all came down pit road and there Bowman was getting an adjustment to his No. 48 Chevrolet that he didn’t even know was occurring.

Ives learned of this move when he was on top of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s pit box a few years ago.

Bowman, would restart third, one row behind Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. At that point of the race, Hamlin had led over half of the race and was restarting in the top spot. He took the lead on pit road during that yellow flag pit sequence when he got by Logano on pit lane.

See, Hamlin who had swept both stages prior, was on the bumper of Logano in the closing laps for the lead and what he thought would be the race win. Then, Harvick crashes and changes everything all over again.

Logano, led 49 laps, came out of the pits second and hoping it would be a battle between he and Hamlin for the win. Prior to the final restart, Logano and Hamlin had combined to lead 179 of the previous 182 laps. Instead, it was Bowman who came out of no where and snookered them both.

Ives’ call for an adjustment paid off for them and put Hamlin behind.

“We just didn’t take off very good there,” Hamlin said of the final restart. “Definitely was the worse that our car took off after a restart. The 48, I’m guessing, his tires pumped up and he was able to take off there, get the lead and then build a lead big enough I didn’t have enough time to get back to him.”

Logano agreed with that too.

“I think that’s probably what it kind of came down to,” Logano said on Sunday. “They (Bowman) made great adjustments to make their car fire off better and what we saw was him being lights out for five, six laps. Then, it equaled out. Then last maybe four, five laps, Denny and I were able to catch him a little bit back.

“I’m just assuming he pumped up his pressure. I’m not sure how much. But seemed like the obvoius play to me. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the strategy of the play, right? IF he didn’t get to the lead in the first two or three laps, he was done, right? He was going to probably finish fifth or sixth. That’s the gamble they took. He took advantage of it, got by everybody pretty quick and kind of made us all look kind of goofy there for a minute.”

Bowman said that even he was surprised by the car coming around on that final restart.

“It did not go the way I thought it was going to go,” said Bowman. “We were pretty awful on short runs all day. To be honest with you, when the caution came out, I was like ‘man we’re going to struggle to get out of here with a top five.’ When we drove away, I was like, “oh my gosh, what is happening?’

“I don’t have a clue what Ives did. I didn’t see a wedge wrench go in it, so I would say air pressure stuff which is typically our go to for short run vs. long run stuff. I sure woke it up, that’s for sure.”

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 09: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, and crew chief Adam Stevens celebrate in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 09, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It goes to show you how important and driver-crew chief relationship is in this sport. We’ve witnessed it the last 2 weeks now.

Adam Stevens called Christopher Bell down pit road for new tires in a risky do-or-die scenario at Charlotte. On a day no one could pass, Bell on new tires went from 11th to win in overtime. Last Sunday, Paul Wolfe called Joey Logano down pit road for a fresh set of tires under the final caution. They gave up track position for better speed.

Logano ended up winning as a direct result of that decision. Both praised their crew chiefs for putting them in a position to win. Bell is in the Round of 8 at the moment because of that call and Logano marches onto the Championship 4 via his win in Vegas.

“As far as Adam Stevens, he’s definitely one of the best in the business,” Bell said after scoring his 2nd win of the season. “A race car driver is only as good as the car underneath of him. Time and time again Adam gives me the opportunity to showcase my talents. Just grateful to have him as a crew chief.

“I can’t stress that enough, that a driver is only as good as the race car that he’s given. Adam is the guy who is giving me great cars.

“Today we were not the fastest car, but we put ourselves in position,” Bell said. “My crew chief made a great call to put tires on, and it worked out where we won the race.”

Stevens is held in high regard as one of the best crew chiefs in the sport today. Stevens helped guide Kyle Busch to a pair of Cup championships and 29 of his 60 (48%) career wins in just a 6-season span.

Busch amassed 5 wins in just 25 starts in 2015, 4 wins in 2016, 5 more in 2017, 8 in 2018 and 5 in 2019. He made the Championship 4 in all 5 years.

2020 was a bit of an adjustment though. COVID struck and out went practice and qualifying. It greatly affected the way that he and Busch worked together. Just 1 win, 14 top 5 finishes and 512 laps led ensued. Busch was eliminated in the Round of 12 of the playoffs.

Busch had led at least 1400 laps in each of the previous 4 seasons and now it felt like they were sliding backwards. With a plethora of crew chief and driver swaps occurring in the sport, Joe Gibbs Racing felt like it was best to split this tandem up. Give Busch a new voice and see if Stevens’ voice could help another driver.

Busch was paired with Ben Beshore. Christopher Bell was paired with Stevens. Basically, the entire teams swapped. Bell was technically the 18 car while Busch was the 20. The only thing that stayed the same was the sponsors and car numbers tied to those drivers.

As we sit nearly 2 years later, the move appears to have worked better for Bell than it did for Busch.

Over the last 2 seasons now, Busch has 3 wins, 22 top 5 finishes, 38 top 10’s and 1,084 laps led. He was eliminated from the playoffs in the 3rd round last year and 1st round this year.

By comparison, Bell also has 3 wins, 18 top 5 finishes, 34 top 10’s and 519 laps led. He was bounced in the Round of 12 last year but with a win in Sunday’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, Bell is now in the Round of 8 this year.

Logano and Wolfe are a great combo too. So is Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson. This is their 7th season together and have won 17 races as well as the 2020 championship together. You have Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart. 16 of Hamlin’s 48 career wins have come in the their short 4 year history together. They’ve never not made the Championship 4.

Even Rudy Fugle and William Byron are clicking. They won 7 races in just one season in the Truck Series together. Byron had 1 win, 9 top 5 finishes and 434 laps led in 108 starts in Cup before Fugle. In 69 Cup starts with Fugle, he has 3 wins, 17 top 5 finishes and 1,139 laps led.

It’s why these driver-crew chief combos are very important and can shape again who wins this years championship.

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