Dissecting the reasons for a crew chief change
by Tom Bowles
If you were a NASCAR crew chief on the hot seat, chances are this summer was brought to you by the color pink — as in pink slip. The roster of head wrenches this week underwent a major shift, with two additional replacements bringing the total up to four since June 5: Greg Erwin (No. 16), Pat Tryson (No. 56), Brian Pattie (No. 42) and Mike Shiplett (No. 43) have now been shown the door. That’s over 10 percent of NASCAR’s fully-funded programs, pulling the equivalent of firing their head coach mid-year with roughly two months of “regular season” races still to go.
It’s the earliest we’ve seen such turnover in several years, ever since sponsorship combined with a change in philosophy put the in-season pressure on the pit box, not the driver. (For those newer fans out there, turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and wheelmen’s jobs were about as safe as Rupert Murdoch’s these days; Mike Chase, in fact, once got fired from his ride just one race into the season). And while all of these crew chiefs were winless on the year, none found their drivers completely outside Chase contention. Truex, at 21st, was the lowest in points among the four programs that pulled the plug.
So why do it now? Why make a change while others having terrible seasons — like David Reutimann (24th in points), Jeff Burton (25th) and Jamie McMurray (29th), keep their crews and chemistry intact? Simple: NASCAR’s “wild card” playoff system has changed the game both on and off the track, providing extra incentive for teams willing to take a chance.
Let’s take Juan Pablo Montoya as an example. At 17th in points, he’s 59 behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin — and a Chase spot — with seven races left in the regular season, meaning there’s no margin for error if sneaking inside the top 10 is a possibility. In the past, teams would rely on the experience of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of their hat, catch fire and sneak into the playoffs the only way they could: by scoring points, not wins. Any changes, if they were going to be made, wouldn’t happen until the Chase field was set in early September, in preparation for the next season’s run.
But now, with NASCAR granting two playoff “wild card” spots to drivers with the most wins that are ranked 11th-20th, both Montoya and owner Chip Ganassi smell opportunity. Last season, Montoya was the top-performing car at Indy — the circuit’s next stop — and he enters Watkins Glen in August as the defending champ. Win those two races, and it’s virtually irrelevant how he does in the other five — the No. 42 has earned itself a postseason bid via wins. That means if Ganassi feels a jolt is needed, why not try to catch lightning in a bottle? If Pattie’s replacement, Jim Pohlman, proves the answer there’s still a chance for the organization to contend for the championship now, not next year. Pattie, considering the No. 42 had led only 99 laps on the year, may only have been able to guide Montoya to a top-5 finish in the aforementioned events. Pohlman’s fresh approach could be the energy needed to push the team over the top.
Of course, there’s a chance Pohlman proves to be the wrong move for Montoya, turning the last 17 races into a disastrous ending while turning an already mediocre year into a failure. With 17 races being a more-than-ample trial period, there’s a justified sample size to give Pohlman the axe for 2012 should things go south. By comparison, would the 10 races after Montoya missed the Chase under the old system (and philosophy of doing things) be enough to make the same decision? Possibly not.
This type of theory applies to Biffle, Allmendinger and even Truex. For Biffle, he’s the defending champ at the upcoming Pocono race and has the equipment to make it to Victory Lane — just ask 2011 winners and teammates at Roush, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth. As for Allmendinger, while winless in NASCAR, he had a fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen last August. The possibility exists for a new crew chief with fresh ideas to take a chance and improve on that promising run. Even Truex, now a month into working with Chad Johnston, is close enough to the top 20 that a win changes his postseason prospects. And already, his team has three top-10 finishes in six starts with Johnston at the helm.
For crew chiefs, this means the job is more tenuous than ever. Erwin, for example, saw a four-year relationship severed after just four months of struggle. But if there’s a silver lining to what’s been a difficult season for the sport, it’s how the buildup to the postseason for over half the field has turned the focus back to where it should be: winning races instead of settling for a “good points day.”