Breaking Down What Makes a Great NASCAR Crew Chief
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In the world of NASCAR, it is the driver who is the star. They are the ones whose likeness is plastered on t-shirts and posters. And it is them who get the fame and glory when they pull into victory lane, or hoist a championship trophy.
Then there is the crew chief.
The crew chief is the person who calls the shots. They are the ones that get the race car set up for the driver to have success. They are the ones with the unenviable task of making late-race pit strategy decisions.
Being a successful NASCAR crew chief involves many factors. I am going to take a look at five intangibles that today's top crew chiefs all share, and which were part of what went into making them the best in the business.
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Every Sprint Cup Series team has a plethora of people who work behind the scenes. There are people who are responsible for tuning the engine, people who specialize in aerodynamics and people who specialize in the car's suspension.
A crew chief must be knowledgeable in all of these areas. He must know how everything works. Having the proper knowledge allows the crew chief to make decisions on what adjustments to make to the car as situations arise.
Whether the knowledge of a crew chief comes from a background in engineering or from years of experience, there is no denying the amount of information that every one of them knows.
If being a crew chief were as easy as simply saying "take a round of wedge out of the car" or "we need to go down a pound of air in the right rear" then every one of us could do it.
The key is to understand what impact those adjustments will make, why they will make that impact, and how it will affect the rest of the cars setup.
If you'll excuse the bad joke, saying that a NASCAR crew chief should be knowledgeable seems like a no-brainer.
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When compared to other sports, a crew chief is the equivalent to a manager in baseball or the head coach in football. Not only do they make all of the decisions involving strategy, but they have to be the emotional leader for both the driver as well as the pit crew.
When adversity strikes, the crew chief is the one who has keep everyone calm. When Denny Hamlin was forced to sit out four races earlier in the season, crew chief Darian Grubb was forced to work with replacement drivers he had never worked with before.
The combination of Mark Martin and Brian Vickers posted two top-10 finishes in four races under Grubb's leadership.
When a pit crew has a poor pit stop, it is the crew chiefs responsibility to keep morale up, and stand behind his team. More often than not, you will hear a crew chief try to encourage the team to perform better on the next stop as opposed to blasting them for a job poorly done.
Whether a race is won or lost based on certain pit strategy, it is the crew chief that is either applauded or left to answer the questions.
Earlier this year in the Coca Cola 600, Kasey Kahne had the dominant car. When the race's final caution flag flew with 14 laps remaining, pit strategy came into play. Instead of pitting for fresh tires, crew chief Kenny Francis elected to have his driver stay on track.
The move ultimately cost Kahne the win, as Kevin Harvick, who pitted for two tires, passed Kahne at the drop of green-flag and went on to win the race.
It was Francis who took the leadership role, and accepted responsibility for the defeat. "Sorry about that. Good job tonight. I can't believe at least four-five guys didn't try and steal one there. I can't believe it. Sorry, man," said a dejected Francis.
3. Pit Strategy
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What do you do on that all important final pit stop? Do you take two tires or four? How about no tires, just fuel? These are the questions that the crew chief must answer, and they only have seconds to decide.
At the end of the day, the strategy that a crew chief chooses to use is either going to make him into the hero or the scapegoat.
Earlier this season in Las Vegas, Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth, elected to take fuel only on the final pit stop, while most other cars on the lead lap elected to change two tires. The move got Kenseth off of pit road with the lead.
Kenseth was able to hold off the hard-charging Kasey Kahne over the final 41 laps and score his first victory driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
While it is usually the final pit stop that gets people talking, every pit stop requires important decisions. Do you pit early and get off sequence with other drivers? Do you take four tires now so you can take two later in the race? Should we just take two tires now and see how the car reacts to it, so we have that information for later in the race?
These are all questions that a crew chief has to ask himself before any pit stop is made. And as soon as one pit stop is complete, preparations for the next one are already underway.
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Good communication between a driver and their crew chief is critical. Whether the crew chief is trying to calm the driver down after an on-track incident, or whether the two are just discussing pit strategy, it is vital that they be on the same page.
While the official title is crew chief, the man in that position must also where many other hats. At times they need to act the part of a cheerleader, encouraging their driver that they can work their way back to the front of the field, and to just "get it back one car at a time."
Other times he needs to be the calming influence in the driver's ear when things really go bad. A great example of this was earlier this year in Dover. After jumping the final restart, Jimmie Johnson was subsequently black-flagged, and forced to relinquish the lead he had held for much of the day.
Johnson became irate over the radio, while it was crew chief Chad Knaus that was left to try to be the calming voice.
The communication doesn't just pertain to a the driver either. As previously mentioned, the crew chief is the head coach of his team. This means he must have proper communication with all departments of the team.
Whether discussing engine tuning back at the shop or pit strategy with his crew, the crew chief must be able to have clear communication with every member that is part of his team so that everyone can be on the same page all throughout a race week.
5. Nerves of Steel
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There is a great inspirational quote that says "in order to succeed you must first be willing to fail." That is especially true for a NASCAR crew chief.
There has never been a crew chief that went undefeated atop the pit box. Every week 42 crew chiefs fail to win, but that doesn't stop them from continuing to set up race cars or make the tough pit calls on a week-to-week basis.
Every race can ultimately come down to one decision that a crew chief makes. It takes a lot of nerves to make some of the calls that they make. Each pit call can feel like a high-stakes gamble. But to succeed at the highest level you can't first be afraid of making the wrong call.
There are very few jobs in the world where you are constantly being watched by millions of people, and your every decision is constantly being scrutinized and second-guessed. But that is a reality for every crew chief that sits atop a pit box.
It takes some pretty thick skin to be able to handle the constant criticism, and a whole bunch of nerves to know that every call you make could be your last one as a crew chief if it doesn't bring your driver and team success.