CUP: The Chase And The Carousel Of Change

The news that roared out of Roush Fenway Racing Tuesday morning – that Chad Norris has replaced Bob Osborne as crew chief for Carl Edwards – didn’t exactly catch the sport by surprise.

It has been clear that some sort of dramatic change was needed in the 99 team structure. And this is as dramatic as they come – short, of course, of Edwards being booted from the ride, a circumstance that was about as likely as Jack Roush showing up for work in a Camry.

This season has seen Edwards hit with the worst of the so-called “hangover” disease. Drivers who finish second in the race for the championship tend to slump in the next season, and Edwards has done just that. After battling Tony Stewart to the final laps for last year’s title, Edwards has struggled mightily this year.

Some of the dire numbers:

Through 19 races, Edwards has been a leader in only two events. He led 206 laps at Richmond and one lap at Kansas.

He has finished on the lead lap in all but four races but has rarely been competitive at the front.

Within the Roush Fenway driver corps, Edwards, generally considered the organization’s top gun, looks lame this year. Matt Kenseth has nine top fives, Greg Biffle has eight, Edwards has only two. Kenseth and Biffle both have been atop the point standings for extended periods. Edwards’ top point spot is sixth.

Over the last 10 races of 2011, Edwards’ average finish was 4.9. Over the past 10 races this season, his average finish has been 15.3.

The biggest number haunting Edwards and his team at the moment, however, is 11. He is 11th in the Sprint Cup point standings. Adding to the pain, he isn’t even close to 10th, sitting 46 points behind 10th-place Brad Keselowski.

If Edwards can’t qualify for the Chase by finishing in the top 10, the wild-card avenue is the only other choice. But things look dreary there, also. Winless since early last season, Edwards is fifth in the current wild-card overview.

The road forward for Edwards is tough. Unless the drivers in the bottom half of the top 10 stagger over the next few weeks, Edwards’ chances of being in the Chase will come down to winning at least a couple of races in the next seven – a tall order, indeed.

Norris will step into that hot spot for the first time on a big stage – Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week as the tour resumes after an off weekend. The rest of the Chase qualifying races are at Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.

Although the news of the Osborne change was somewhat surprising – only eight months ago, he was one point away from a Sprint Cup championship, the crew chief carousel spins freely in NASCAR. Only four teams currently have the same driver-crew chief combinations that existed for the 2010 Daytona 500. And other big-name crew chiefs like Steve Addington, Mike Ford and Darian Grubb (last year’s champion) have found themselves packing their tools and moving on (or, in Osborne’s case, sideways).

Clearly, it will be a major embarrassment for Ford’s racing operations and Roush Fenway if Edwards, the Blue Oval’s most marketable driver, fails to make the Chase.

The team has eight weeks and seven races – and a new boss – to reverse the trends.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.