Ranking the 11 Most Intelligent Crew Chiefs in NASCAR Today

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2013

Ranking the 11 Most Intelligent Crew Chiefs in NASCAR Today

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    There's an old saying in NASCAR that one of the main differences between a good driver and a great driver is his/her crew chief.

    Look at some of the greatest drivers in the sport's history, and it's questionable if they would have achieved the success they did in their careers without the guy atop the so-called war wagon.

    Richard Petty likely wouldn't have won 200 races and a record-tying seven Cup championships if it wasn't for Dale Inman. Jeff Gordon wouldn't have won three of his four Cup championships if it wasn't for Ray Evernham.

    And the late Dale Earnhardt wouldn't have won his seven Cup crowns (tying him with Petty) if it wasn't for the guys who called the shots during those championship seasons: Doug Richert (1980), Kirk Shelmerdine (1986, 1987, 1990 and 1991) and Andy Petree (1993 and 1994).

    All drivers do pretty much is drive, but crew chiefs do pretty much everything else. They hire members of the pit crew, formulate pit stop strategy, devise overall game plans going into each race, oversee preparation of the race car and pretty much anything and everything in between.

    Crew chiefs have to think outside the box, push the envelope (if they think they can get away with it), try to take advantage of the rule book when necessary and, in short, have to out-think their fellow peers atop the other 42 war wagons on race day.

    Boil all that down and it comes down to who is more intelligent than the next guy. That's the difference between a driver being an also-ran or a champion.

    Today we look at the top 11 most intelligent and active crew chiefs in the Sprint Cup game. (We originally planned on having 10, but we wound up with a tie for 10th place, thus the need for a top 11.) They not only are mechanical wizards, they have an innate sense of ability, talent and drive that is capped off by having a pretty darn good noggin.

    Here's how we rank 'em. Do you agree? Either way, leave us your thoughts in the comments section.

10 (tie): Gil Martin (crew chief for Kevin Harvick)

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    We mean this in a good way, but Gil Martin is like a bad rash: You can't get rid of him because he keeps coming back.

    Martin is in his third stint as crew chief for Kevin Harvick, having previously served in 2002 and part of 2003, from 2009 through 2011 and then when Shane Wilson and Harvick failed to make much progress in 2012, Martin returned to the No. 29 Chevrolet for the final 12 races—a role that he continues to this day.

    During that stint, he's led Harvick to nine wins, not to mention spearheading two wins for Clint Bowyer when he was still part of Richard Childress Racing.

    All told, Martin has 12 Cup wins as a crew chief.

    With Harvick leaving RCR at the end of this season to join Stewart Haas Racing in 2014, Martin could become one of the most-sought free agents as well when Harvick departs.

10 (tie): Steve Addington (Tony Stewart)

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    Quick: Who is the fifth-winningest active crew chief in Sprint Cup? I'm willing to bet that very few people would have picked Steve Addington, but he indeed is the answer to that trivia question.

    While Addington's wins should rank him higher on this list, the fact is the drivers he's served as crew chief for on the Cup series have simply just not done very well once they reached the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Consider this: In two years with Kyle Busch, two years with Kurt Busch and one year with Tony Stewart, the highest finish any of Addington's drivers have had in a season has been ninth (Stewart in 2012).

    That's a tough pill to swallow, but it's almost like leading a horse to water and he doesn't drink. With Addington atop the war wagon, he's enjoyed a number of regular-season wins with his charges, but when it comes to winning championships, he's left a lot to be desired.

    The odd thing is Addington was exceptional as a crew chief in the Nationwide Series, leading Jason Keller to finishes of fourth, eighth, second, third, second and fifth—as well as fifth-place finishes in single-season runs by Mike Bliss and Denny Hamlin.

    An even greater oddity: Stewart won the 2011 Cup championship with Darian Grubb atop the war wagon, including notching five wins in the 10-race Chase, only to fire Grubb afterward in favor of Addington coming on board in 2012.

    Stewart won 16 races with Grubb in four years. Last season under Addington, Stewart managed just three wins, a huge drop from 2011 under Grubb.

9: Alan Gustafson (Jeff Gordon)

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    Alan Gustafson, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated crew chiefs in the business.

    Gustafson has called shots for three of the biggest names in the sport: Kyle Busch (led him to four Cup wins), Mark Martin (five wins) and currently Jeff Gordon (also five wins).

    He has a youthful and easygoing personality that meshes well with any driver he works for. Plus his technical knowledge of car preparation is exceptional.

    His youthful looks belie the years of hard work and experience he's acquired at Hendrick Motorsports. To me, Gustafson is a championship waiting to happen, and it will come soon enough—it's not a matter of if, but when.

8: Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski)

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    Since being named crew chief for Brad Keselowski to start the 2011 season, Paul Wolfe has developed an incredible relationship with Brad Keselowski.

    That pairing has resulted in eight Cup wins in their first two seasons together, but more importantly, the Sprint Cup championship last season.

    Wolfe has a quiet, almost shy demeanor, but don't let that fool you. He's one of the smartest guys in the Sprint Cup garage—and the results that Keselowski has had more than bear that out.

7: Matt Borland (Ryan Newman)

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    Matt Borland and Ryan Newman developed a magical relationship when they were together at Penske Racing from 2000 through 2006.

    After mostly short-lived stints as crew chief with Dale Jarrett, Max Papis, Scott Riggs and Boris Said, Borland has rejoined Newman under the Stewart Haas banner this season.

    How significant was the Newman-Borland re-pairing? Together, they claimed 12 wins and 37 poles together during their first tenure together. Borland has never won a race or a pole with any other driver after his first stint with Newman.

    Can lightning strike twice for the duo in 2013? They looked like they hadn't missed a step in the season-opening Daytona 500, with Newman finishing fifth. But the last two races have not been kind: Newman was 40th at Phoenix (due to a crash) and 38th on Sunday at Las Vegas (due to Las Vegas).

    It should be interesting to see how Newman and Borland bounce back this coming Sunday at Bristol.

6: Kenny Francis (Kasey Kahne)

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    Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne have seemingly been joined at the hip since they first were paired together by former team owner Ray Evernham in 2005.

    Together, the pair have combined for 13 of Kahne's 14 career Cup wins and have reached the Chase for the Sprint Cup three different times, including a career-best fourth-place finish last season, their first year together at Hendrick Motorsports.

    The move to HMS has been just the thing Kahne and Francis have needed: They have the best equipment and the best support personnel in the business.

    And with Kahne's immense talent, he finally has a realistic chance of winning a Cup championship—with Francis atop the war wagon, of course.

5: Steve Letarte (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

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    Steve Letarte established himself as one of the better crew chiefs in the business during a six-year run atop the war wagon for Jeff Gordon, leading the driver of the No. 24 to 10 wins and 15 poles, not to mention finishes of 11th, sixth, second, seventh, third and ninth.

    When Earnhardt moved to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and struggled with both performance and communication issues under crew chiefs Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew, team owner Rick Hendrick decided to shift Letarte to become Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief in 2011 and the results were almost instantaneous.

    Earnhardt had four top-five and 12 top-10s in 2011, making the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in four years under Letarte's tutelage.

    Things were even better in 2012: Earnhardt finally snapped a 142-race winless streak that dated back to 2008, and added 10 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. He had arguably the best first 26 races of his career last year, hovering around first place in the standings for most of that time before suffering a concussion during the Chase that forced him to miss two races and ended his championship hopes.

    Earnhardt was second after the first two races this season before dropping to third in the standings after Sunday's race in Las Vegas. However, that's still a strong start, one that will likely continue on just like last season.

    It may be too early to start thinking Cup championship for Earnhardt this season. But it's pretty clear that if anyone is going to get him to that level, it'll be Letarte.

4: Darian Grubb (Denny Hamlin)

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    Darian Grubb has 19 wins and one Sprint Cup championship to his credit (with Tony Stewart in 2011). He also holds the distinction of being the first championship-winning crew chief on the Cup level to be fired right after his team won the title.

    While we may never know the real story behind Grubb's departure from Stewart Haas Racing after the 2011 title, the fact of the matter remains is that Grubb has been one of the most successful—and yet underrated—crew chiefs in the business for too long.

    He was atop the war wagon when Jimmie Johnson won his first Daytona 500 in 2006 (Chad Knaus had been suspended by NASCAR for rules violations).

    And, other than a 15th-place season finish with Casey Mears in his first full-time stint as a crew chief in 2007, no driver under Grubb's tutelage since then has finished lower than seventh in the season standings.

    While being fired from SHR after 2011 was quite a jolt, Grubb rebounded quite nicely—and perhaps with a bit of vindication—by becoming Denny Hamlin's crew chief in 2012 and leading him to a fourth-place finish that season, five spots higher than Stewart finished after winning the Cup title the year before.

3: Todd Parrott (Aric Almirola)

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    Todd Parrott is the third-winningest active crew chief in Sprint Cup today, having led his drivers to 31 wins, including taking Dale Jarrett to a Cup championship in 1999.

    Speaking of Jarrett, in a seven-season run with Parrott as his crew chief, the current ESPN analyst had consecutive season finishes of third, second, third, first, fourth, fifth and ninth.

    Unfortunately, since then, Parrott has had just one other top-10 finish as a crew chief (ninth, Elliott Sadler, 2004).

    However, 2013 has been a flashback to vintage Parrott, as his driver, Aric Almirola, is a surprising 10th in the season standings after the first three races, with consistent finishes of 13th (Daytona), 15th (Phoenix) and 16th (Las Vegas).

2: Jimmy Fennig (Carl Edwards)

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    Jimmy Fennig is perhaps the most respected and admired crew chief in the Sprint Cup garage today—and has been for more than two decades.

    He led Kurt Busch to the first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2004 and has 37 wins in his long, illustrious career.

    The drivers Fennig has worked with since moving to North Carolina from his native Wisconsin in the mid-1980s includes Mark Martin, Bobby Allison, Dick Trickle, Jimmy Spencer, Derrike Cope, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, David Ragan and the last two-and-a-half seasons with Matt Kenseth.

    Fennig moved over to become Carl Edwards' crew chief for 2013 and the duo already has a win (Phoenix) and a fifth-place finish (Las Vegas).

    This pairing is starting to look very good, leaving us one question to ponder: Why did it take team owner Jack Roush so long to pair Fennig and Edwards together, especially if this season ultimately ends in a Cup championship for the duo?

1: Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson)

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    Rockford, Ill. is known for a number of famous natives, including actresses Jodi Benson and Susan Saint James, actor Aiden Quinn, Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams and rock group Cheap Trick.

    And let's not forget that Danica Patrick grew up down the road in nearby Roscoe.

    But none of Rockford's favorite daughters or sons can compare to the accomplishments of Chad Knaus, who is the winningest active crew chief in Sprint Cup (59 wins) and led Jimmie Johnson to a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 to 2010.

    Here is perhaps the most amazing stat of all: In 11 seasons with Johnson, the pair has 10 top-five season finishes (including five championships) and the lowest finish being sixth (2011).

    With Johnson winning this season's Daytona 500, finishing second at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas, it looks pretty clear that the Knaus-Johnson combo is going all-out to win that sixth career Cup title. If they do so, they'll be within one of NASCAR's all-time record of seven Cup crowns shared by the sport's two greatest drivers ever: Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

    Knaus is the most fastidious crew chief in the business, always looking for an edge on his peers that will help the No. 48 Chevrolet do better than any other car or team out there.

    While he's bent a few rules that have garnered suspensions and fines, you don't win 59 races together without being arguably the most intelligent crew chief in the business.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski