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.
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.
It goes to show you how important and driver-crew chief relationship is in this sport. We’ve witnessed it in 3 of the last 4 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 week he did it again, in a similar moment on a track tough to pass on. This time, there was 29 laps-to-go and Bell was leading. Stevens had him pit anyways. On the ensuing restart and being in 6th, Bell had 24 laps to get to first. He did.
Bell and Stevens are in the final four.
In 280 NASCAR Cup Series starts, Stevens has led drivers to the following achievements since 2015:
- Two NASCAR Cup Series Championship (with driver Kyle Busch: 2015, 2019)
- Six total NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances; five are consecutive (2015-2019, 2022)
- Eight consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances
- 32 wins
- 115 top fives
- 170 top 10s
- 8,232 laps led
- 19 poles
Bell and Stevens will look to capture their first NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If they accomplish the feat, Stevens will become the fifth different crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series with titles with multiple drivers; joining crew chiefs Bud Moore (Buck Baker 1957 and Joe Weatherly 1962, 1963); Carl Kiekhaefer (Tim Flock 1955 and Buck Baker 1956), Dale Inman (Richard Petty 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979 and Terry Labonte 1984); and Tim Brewer (Cale Yarborough 1978 and Darrell Waltrip 1981).
“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.
Logano and Wolfe are a great combo too. In Vegas, 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 he and Bell each praised their crew chiefs for putting them in a position to win.
Wolfe is going for second title.
Before becoming a crew chief, Paul Wolfe competed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driving for
car owners Ray Evernham, Armando Fitz, Tommy Baldwin Jr. and Eddie D’Hondt from
2003 – 2005. Wolfe’s first NASCAR crew chief opportunity came at Fitz Bradshaw Racing in 2006. He then moved to Braun Racing in 2008 and then CJM Racing in 2009 before settling at Team Penske in 2010.
In 2010, Wolfe led Brad Keselowski to the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship after posting six wins on the season. In 2011 the duo made the leap to the NASCAR Cup Series and in just their second season together in the NASCAR Cup Series (2012), he led Brad Keselowski to the series championship, becoming the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win a NASCAR Cup Series and a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship as the duo posted five wins in 2012 in the Cup Series.
From 2011-2019, Keselowski and Wolfe put up 29 wins, 110 top fives and 175 top 10s. The in 2020, Wolfe joined Joey Logano and the No. 22 team and has not missed a beat. Since joining forces, Logano and Wolfe have made 106 start together in the NASCAR Cup Series amassing seven wins, 31 top fives and 51 top 10s. they have qualified for the Playoffs all three seasons of working together and have made the Championship 4 Round twice (2020, 2022).
The Logano-Wolfe pair has combined for the following achievements in 106 NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2020:
- Two NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances (2020, 2022)
- Three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2020-2022)
- 7 wins
- 31 top fives
- 51 top 10s
- 1,989 laps led
- 3 poles
So is Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson. This is their 7th season together.
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 16th different crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series to win multiple titles all-time. If Gustafson and the No. 9 team pull off the championship this weekend, Gustafson will also become just the second active crew chief with multiple Cup Series titles, joining Adam Stevens (2015, 2019).
During his 18 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 18 seasons he led his drivers to 15 Playoff appearances and to wins in 14 of the 18 seasons. This weekend at Phoenix will mark his fourth 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. In his other two appearances, he won the championship in 2020 and finished fourth in the final standings last season.
The Elliott-Gustafson pair has combined for the following achievements in 247 NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2016:
- One NASCAR Cup Series Championship (2020)
- One NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Championship (2022)
- Three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances (2020, 2021, 2022)
- Seven consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2016-2022)
- 18 wins
- 84 top fives
- 135 top 10s
- 4,900 laps led
- 12 poles
The two will look to capture their second NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Gustafson is one of 44 different crew chiefs in the NASCAR Cup Series with a championship.
Then you have Ross Chastain and Phil Surgen who are eyeing their first title each.
Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Chip Ganassi Racing crew chief in 2016, Phil Surgen has shown that he is one of the rising stars in the sport. Surgen has worked on a part-time basis with drivers Kyle Larson (2016), Matt Kenseth (2020) before serving as crew chief fulltime with Ross Chastain in 2021. Surgen also made the jump to Trackhouse Racing with Chastain this season. During his two seasons of full-time competition with Chastain, the duo has made 71 Cup Series starts together posting two wins, 17 top fives and 28 top 10s. The pair has also qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and the Championship 4 Round for the first-time in their careers.
The Chastain-Surgen pair has combined for the following achievements in 71 NASCAR Cup Series races together:
- One NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearance (2022)
- One NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2022)
- 2 wins
- 17 top fives
- 28 top 10s
- 754 laps led
The two will look to capture their first NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If they accomplish the feat, Surgen will become the 45th different crew chief in the series with a championship.
It’s why these driver-crew chief combos are very important and can shape again who wins this years championship.