Race to make the Chase puts crew chiefs on a shorter leash than ever
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The pressure to make NASCAR's Chase isn't limited to the drivers who do battle nearly every weekend. The crew chiefs also feel the strain, especially those who are currently outside of the top 10 in the standings or without a victory. With seven races left until the Chase, some teams are already caving in to the tremendous pressure.
Case in point -- three crew chiefs have been fired in the past 10 days.
On July 11, Matt Puccia replaced Greg Biffle's longtime crew chief Greg Erwin. At the time, Biffle, 14th in points, was 33 points out of the Chase and without a victory in 2011.
Greg Shiplett was booted as A.J. Allmendinger's crew chief this past Monday. The No. 43 car at Richard Petty Motorsports, 16th in points, was 55 points out of the Chase and also without a victory. Ironically, Shiplett was replaced by Erwin.
This past Tuesday, Brian Pattie got tossed as crew chief of Juan Pablo Montoya's No. 42 Chevrolet at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. He was replaced by Jim Pohlman. Montoya, 17th in points, is 59 points out of the Chase without a victory to qualify for one of the two wild cards (positions 11 and 12 in the Chase).
There is little doubt that the Chase has put crew chiefs and crew members on a shorter leash than ever.
"The pressure is on and either you are in or you are out," Erwin told SI.com on Tuesday afternoon from the team's shop in Concord, N.C. "If you don't see yourself [in the Chase], you are making changes from a management level just like a team owner would make a change with a quarterback or a coach or an influential position. It's a shame because all of these teams are pretty good race teams and they have all had opportunities to win races this year. We know these races are really, really hard to come by as far as the wins.
"Look at the No. 48 car -- a five time champion with one win right now. That tells you how hard these things are to win."
Erwin's dismissal at Roush Fenway Racing last week didn't shock the man himself.
"The performance was there; the finishes were not," Erwin said of his aborted season with the No. 16. "We led the most laps at Michigan not long before that and we had several top-10 runs the last five weeks that came to an end ... in the pits. The finishes weren't there and when you are the crew chief on one of these things you are ultimately responsible for that. We kind of expected it. Kentucky was another one when we had a top-eight car and wound up 21st. Greg Biffle was frustrated. I was extremely frustrated and it was time to make a change, so hopefully this works out better for him and for us."
Steve Addington is the crew chief for Kurt Busch's No. 22 Dodge at Penske Racing and knows all about how missing the Chase can cost a top-level crew chief his job. He was Kyle Busch's crew chief in 2008, when the driver won a season-high eight races but faltered badly in the Chase. A year later, Busch missed the Chase by just eight points and it cost Addington his job.
"It was after the Talladega race in October when they made the decision that I wasn't going to be there anymore," Addington told SI.com on Tuesday. "When they told me the news, I sat in my office and wondered what I did wrong? ... It [the decision] comes from sponsors or the driver thinking we are not making enough progress as a race team. ... We got in the Chase in 2008 and had a parts failure and a few engines go bad and that shot our season to pieces. This is a tough business and you have to look at it in the business world. If you are in the business of making the company money and you aren't making them money any more you get replaced. If it comes down to performance it's the crew chief that has to go."
While it appears that Erwin, Shiplett and Pattie all lost their positions due to the Chase, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, doesn't agree, pointing out that teams changed crew chiefs and crew members in championship runs even before the advent of the Chase in 2004.
"I don't think the Chase has really had much to do with that," Knaus told SI.com from his office at Hendrick Motorsports. "We've had turnover with crew chiefs for years and years and years -- well before the Chase was ever around. I don't think that [the Chase] has a direct bearing on the turnover rate of the crew chiefs. I think it's just flat performance. How the team performs with a certain crew chief's style and how a driver interacts with that style is how it maintains.
"The Chase has put more pressure on you as a whole because if you don't perform over the first 26 races nobody is going to care about you in the last 10. It is definitely difficult. It has put a lot of stress on a lot of people but it is what it is. It's the rules."
When told of Knaus' comments, Erwin disagreed. He believes the Chase explains the timing of these moves.
"Sure you would make changes, but back in the day if you were 15th in points right now with 16 races to go in the season, you are not out of the championship hunt," Erwin pointed out. "You're not out of it until there are five races to go. Now, you are out of it in a few weeks if you don't get your game on. Then you are racing the last 10 races for [wins]. You are not points racing -- you are racing for wins exclusively.
"With the advent of the wild card it has changed the picture. You can't be points racing anymore because 12th or 11th in points isn't going to get it done. You have to be either 10th in points of you have to have a W or maybe two Ws. The pressure to score the win and be in a position to make the 'Big Dance,' it's no different than playoff football. You have to make the playoffs to win the Super Bowl."
Erwin was able to get a new opportunity with a team that works in conjunction with Roush Fenway Racing. In fact, the team's shops are close and because of Biffle and Allmendinger's points positions, the transporters will be parked next to each other when racing resumes at the Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400 next weekend.
"Parking right next to them will be pretty awkward, a little bit weird," Erwin admitted. "I just hope I don't walk into the back of the wrong truck too many times. I've been walking into the back of the No. 16 for a little over four years now. I have to make sure I walk into the back of the right truck."
While the crew chief is often the one who takes the heat, teams also constantly tweak and make changes to the over-the-wall members of the pit crew. The entire crew for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was benched and replaced with Jeff Gordon's pit crew midway through the eighth Chase race at Texas last season after some poor pit stops. Wholesale changes were then made to Johnson's pit crew for the final two races at Phoenix and Homestead, and the team was able to come from behind to win Johnson's fifth straight Cup title in 2010.
Knaus maintains, however, that the Chase didn't dictate these pit crew swaps.
"If this was 2002 and the No. 24 and No. 48 [were] in the same shop and the 48 wasn't battling for the championship and the 24 was, and their pit crew faltered, we would for sure give them the 48 pit crew," he said. "The Chase has absolutely nothing to do with that."
It may seem cutthroat, but racing, like any sport, is a results-oriented business.
"You have to perform in this industry to maintain and keep your job," Knaus said. "You know that coming in, and you know if you don't continue to perform you will get moved and switched to another team or benched. That is the way it is in every single sport in the world. People forget this is a team sport; not a driver's sport. It is our responsibility to put out the best team that we can.
"At Gibbs they move people around like they are Dominoes. It's the nature of the sport. You are working on that magic combination, and once you find that magic combination it works but it works for a little while. It doesn't work forever. There is no forever in sports."
That is why one day a driver other than Jimmie Johnson will win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And one day a crew chief other than Chad Knaus will be celebrating a championship at the NASCAR awards celebration in Las Vegas.
That is the goal of every other team that competes against Johnson and Knaus, which is why the stakes are so high at this time of year.
"The Chase has put the pressure on race teams and organizations from a sponsorship standpoint," Addington explained. "When we get to those last 10 races everybody is focusing on the guys in the Chase. ... That has led to organizations needing their cars in the Chase and racing for the championship at the end of the season so the sponsors will be happy. That has put a lot of pressure on the guys and the crew chiefs to make the decisions on the car."
Don't expect Knaus to lend a sympathetic ear to anyone in the NASCAR garage area when it comes to pressure. Not only does Knaus seem to excel under pressure; he actually relishes it. "Bring it on" should be Knaus' competitive mantra.
"Yes, stress is high," Knaus admitted. "Stress is high right now for us and we are second in points. The way the points are right now it's hard on everybody. If you have two bad races you are hating life. ... It's difficult to do that but it's sports, man. Shoot, we don't do this because it's easy; we do this because it's a challenge and it is difficult and it's stressful and it takes effort and commitment and drive and if you don't have that then go away, do something else.
"Go knitting. I don't care."