There is arguably no harder job in racing than being a NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief, a position that requires the book smarts of an engineer, the people smarts of a motivational speaker, the guts of a football coach and the tactical skill of a military officer.
It is little wonder that between the end of the 2009 Sprint Cup season and the end of the 2010 campaign, more than half of the full-time teams in the garage changed crew chiefs, some more than once. Matt Kenseth alone went through three crew chiefs this past season and still managed a top-five points finish for Roush Fenway Racing.
An even more dramatic statistic: If you go back to the start of the 2008 Cup season, just four driver/crew chief/team pairings remain in tact: Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford at Joe Gibbs Racing; Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin at Roush Fenway Racing; Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus at Hendrick Motorsports; and Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne at Roush. It’s little coincidence that all four finished sixth or better in points this year.
And already the flurry of movement has begun for 2011, as teams, drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors move to align themselves with new partners and try to improve their respective teams.
Following are the big moves so far.
No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge: Driver, Brad Keselowski, Crew Chief Paul Wolfe — After a disappointing first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the ante gets raised considerably in 2011 for Keselowski, who was the runaway NASCAR Nationwide Series champion in 2010.
Next year Keselowski and his NNS championship crew chief Wolfe will pair off with the iconic No. 2 Penske Racing “Blue Deuce,” where expectations will be much higher than to finish 25th in points.
“We've got room to improve everywhere as a team, and myself as a driver I see a lot of things that I can be better at and we've got to grow together,” said Keselowski. “So you kind of dissect that and look at it, and know that we're all on the same page. We all want the same things. As long as we continue to work forward on that, we'll get better.”
No. 4 Red Bull Racing Toyota: Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis — Next year will be an odd one for Kahne and Francis, a 2011-only deal at Red Bull, where they expect to be one of two team cars, the other being driven by Brian Vickers, who was sidelined by blood clots for the final two-thirds of the 2010 campaign.
This team could deliver big things, as Kahne and Francis were frontrunners at Richard Petty Motorsports before the team imploded under George Gillett’s crushing debt load.
“I want to come out and win next year and the only way to do that is to be prepared and get off to a great start at the start of the season,” said Kahne, who spent the last five races of 2010 at Red Bull, posting a best finish of sixth at Homestead.
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Mark Martin and Lance McGrew — After nearly winning the Sprint Cup championship in 2009, Martin missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2010, although he finished the year strongly and wound up 13th in points, with four finishes of sixth or better in the final seven races. Next year will be his third and final season with Hendrick Motorsports.
He’ll be paired in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet with former Nationwide Series championship crew chief Lance McGrew, a man who in his tenure as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief was more reviled by the Earnhardt Nation than President Obama is by the Teabaggers. McGrew should find working with Martin a whole lot more pleasant and less stressful.
“My commitment to Mark and my sponsors and everybody else, we’re not going to have a lame-duck situation,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, after announcing that he was swapping three of his four crew chiefs. “We’re going to go for wins and championships, and Mark can do that. And that team can do that.”
No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, Marcos Ambrose and Todd Parrott — With one foot in the grave, RPM lived to fight on thanks to a new ownership group that came onboard this week. But with massive layoffs at the team and an uncertain sponsorship situation, Parrott might have the toughest task ahead of him of any of the new crew chiefs.
“I’ve been spending time with him (Ambrose) dating back to Kansas or Fontana,” Parrott told FOXSports.com’s Lee Spencer. “We’ve been talking, working on communication. He’s been coming over here, getting fitted for seats. He has some ideas of what he wants, what he’s looking for, so the conversations between us have been very good.”
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson — This is the most intriguing pairing out there. Gustafson is regarded as a brilliant and talented young crew chief whose star is on the rise, while the four-time champion Gordon’s record speaks for itself.
Both men are coming off disappointing seasons and are very hungry to show the world that they can win a championship, or at least a few races.
“He and Jeff have a relationship,” team owner Hendrick said of Gustafson. “He’s very technical, not a lot of conversation but very to the point and matter-of-fact. And Jeff I think at this point in his career, and with his track record, that works good for Jeff.”
No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Paul Menard and Slugger Labbe — Coming off a productive first year together at RPM, Menard and Labbe will move to Richard Childress Racing in 2011, where they should be able to continue to deliver improved results.
“Working with Paul this year and him working with me, we kind of know each other, so hopefully it will help the transition over to RCR to be seamless,” Labbe said in a recent interview with SceneDaily.com reporter Bob Pockrass. “I’ve been talking a lot to the people over at RCR. They’re building cars for us now. We’ve got a huge jump on 2011 already. … I understand Paul’s lingo and his mentality, what he likes, what he doesn’t like. I know that already. When we get to Daytona, it’s not like we’re going to be nervous.”
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte — NASCAR’s perennially most-popular driver has had two miserable seasons in a row, 25th in points in 2009 and 21st this past season. Earnhardt’s fans blamed his former crew chief McGrew and car owner Hendrick for their favorite driver’s lackluster performances, but the truth is, Earnhardt needs to deliver in 2011 after winning just one points race in the previous three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in the debriefs and so forth,” said Hendrick. “I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. I think Steve will be able to, because of that chemistry between the two of them, I think that will be very good. That’s where I think that one works.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.