The guy who put the nickname “Zippy” into the NASCAR lexicon has found himself taking things a little more slowly these days.
Greg Zipadelli was crew chief for Tony Stewart for 10 Sprint Cup seasons. They formed a formidable team – and a virtually unbreakable bond – over that period, winning two series championships for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Considering Stewart’s obnoxious outbursts, problems with NASCAR officials and news media members and occasional infantile behavior, many were surprised that Zipadelli was able to last a decade – and make it remarkably productive – with the fiery driver.
Their partnership came to an end last year when Stewart decided to move on, becoming a part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. His driver’s seat was filled by the much more composed, much younger Joey Logano, a driver with so much bubbling potential he carried the nickname Sliced Bread.
For the first time in his Cup career, Zipadelli had a new driver – one with grand promise, to be sure, but still a newbie.
Their first season could be described as middling – Logano won a race (in a rain-shortened event at New Hampshire) but had only seven top 10s and finished 20th in points. It wasn’t great; it wasn’t bad.
For both Logano and Zipadelli, it was a learning experience.
“Last year, we were just still learning,” Zipadelli said. “For me it was just starting over. You take so much for granted with a guy like Smoke (Stewart). When he tells you it’s a little tight here or a little loose there, he goes out and drives it and makes up for what he can and you fix the parts that annoy him.
“This was a pretty big change – to start all over, process, think about things, slow my mind down as far as not throwing a bunch of stuff at it. The whole number thing is a lot different working with somebody else as far as what tight and loose are.”
Zipadelli said he and Logano both went through a period of modifying the team’s approach to racing and to how much they might accomplish and how quickly. “He (Logano) was looking for a magic setup and it wasn’t there,” Zipadelli said. “Toward the end of the year, we started putting in what we thought was right and made a little adjustment and gave him an opportunity to go out and run laps and get a feel for that and make adjustments to his driving style. That’s kind of what we’ve done this year, too. It’s been really small changes for the most part. He has a better idea of what he’s looking for. That gives us a much better box to work in.
“Toward the end of the year last year, I figured out that I just needed to really slow down how I did things and what I did. We were looking for things that weren’t there.”
Logano, still only 19, has been wildly successful – and quickly – at every form of racing he’s tried since he began racing quarter-midgets at the age of 7. He hit a wall of sorts in his first year in Cup – a result that was not unexpected.
Some of the edge of the New Hampshire win was trimmed by the fact that it was impacted by weather, but Zipadelli said it remains an important accomplishment.
“It made a significant difference to me and my guys,” he said. “We had won a race every year, and that’s a pretty good win streak. A lot of my guys have been with me going on 12 years now, so as a group that was pretty important. There’s probably more pressure this year to do it because we are running a little better and we’re a year further into it.”
Logano took a noteworthy step Friday by winning his first Sprint Cup pole position. He’ll start first in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Zipadelli described Logano as “very smooth and consistent. He had good habits, but when he got in this car at some of the big tracks we had to break some of his bad habits. But he’s been really good at where to make speed, where to get in and out of the throttle, stuff like that.
“He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. We haven’t wrecked many race cars due to him driving over his head or trying to make more speed. He has a very good control and feel for what his limit is. So you help him increase his limit and fix the car, and he goes faster.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.