Making the Right Call: The Top Ten Crew Chiefs In NASCAR
In NASCAR, or any motorsport for that matter, it's the driver that gets all the glory. The reason is because they are the ones that are muscling the car around the track.
In reality, there are many people involved in making a car ready for a race. The pit crew that goes over the wall are the ones most vulnerable because they have to dodge oncoming traffic just to put on tires and add fuel.
The crews at the shop are also extremely crucial in getting a team to victory lane. The are the ones building the cars, the engines, taking in all the data, and making the current cars that much better.
However, no member of any NASCAR team is more important than the crew chief. If the driver is the backbone of the team, then the crew chief is the mind. He's the one crunching the numbers, and tells the driver what he needs to hear.
It's not easy being the guy on the pit box making the calls. One decision could either put a driver in the winner's circle, or lead to disappointment.
They are also the constant voice in the driver's helmet, giving words of encouragement. Other times they are the ones trying to calm the driver down because an incident caused them aggravation. It's their words that keep that driver focused, looking ahead to the ultimate goal.
It is possibly the most difficult job in NASCAR that doesn't involve being part of the sanctioning body. Only a few certain individuals that have been able to master the task of being a crew chief in NASCAR.
But, who is considered the best at what they do?
Here's a look at the top 10 current crew chiefs in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
No. 10: Lance McGrew, No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet
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Sure, being a crew chief is difficult for any team. We see some teams go through multiple crew chiefs for one driver in a season.
But, try being the crew chief for the most popular driver in the sport.
That task currently belongs to Lance McGrew, who took over the reins of Tony Eury Jr. following the 2009 Coca-Cola 600.
A lot of responsibility has been put on McGrew's shoulders. Not only does he have to worry about getting the No. 88 Chevrolet performing well for the team and sponsors, he must also worry about "Junior Nation."
Face it, the pressure of being the most popular driver in NASCAR is a trickle-down effect to the entire team. When that car doesn't perform well, the entire team takes heat. But, none more so than McGrew because he's the one making the biggest decisions on how to make the car run well.
At the same time, the pressure has proved at some times to be too much. Junior has not run well the last two years, even with the chance at the top.
His last win came in 2008, and in the last five years, he only has two wins to his credit. McGrew was appointed by Rick Hendrick himself to get the No. 88 back to where it was in the 2008 season. At this point, it appears that little headway has been made.
But, at the same time, not all has been lost.
Junior still argues on the radio at some points, but there are fewer angry exchanges, and more informative views on how the car handles are the norm.
Whether McGrew will get the job done is yet to be seen, but taking on the tough task of making the Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet run well is a feat in itself.
No. 9: Pat Tryson, No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota
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He may be in a new place, but Pat Tryson has a lot of knowledge in his new surroundings at Michael Waltrip Racing.
The reason why, his former boss, Roger Penske.
Until the end of the 2009 season, Tryson was on the pit box of the Miller Lite Dodge and Kurt Busch. Being one of the most recognized teams in the sport, Tryson managed to get Busch to victory lane on multiple occasions.
But, the relationship soon went sour late last year, prompting swift changes in the team. Tryson himself was actually barred from being in the shop towards the end of the season.
Feeling slighted from the team, he looked for a new team that could give him a chance to showcase his talent.
This year, he has taken a spot on the box of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota, and has taken on the job of being the crew chief for Martin Truex Jr.
So far this year, the combination has shown to be working. The chemistry between the two is very good, and performance has been up with this team.
Call it experience, call it karma, or just call Tryson very good at what he does.
No. 8: Alan Gustafson, No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet
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Quite possibly the most unexpected and the most unbelievable driver-crew chief combination came about last season.
When Mark Martin signed on to go full-time racing again, he got the reins of the No. 5 Chevrolet. The crew chief getting the responsibility to guide Martin was Alan Gustafson.
At the beginning of the year, the two couldn't find the right chemistry. But, once they got that first win under their belts, it was simply magic. Five wins, and nearly winning the championship, made for an excellent season. However, it was what Martin said of Gustafson that made this crew chief one of the top ones in the sport.
All year long, when Martin ran well and was in contention, he kept giving all the credit to Gustafson. He often called him the best crew chief he ever worked with. But, it was something that stuck out following Darlington that made this combination really stick.
Martin won the Southern 500, but weeks before Gustafson said that Martin was his childhood hero growing up.
To return the favor, Martin said in victory lane, "I may be his childhood hero, but he's my childhood hero right now. He is the man."
The ultimate complement from possibly the most well-respected drivers in the garage.
In a few years, Gustafson will possibly take control of being the crew chief once Kasey Kahne takes control of the No. 5 car.
Until then, what we all have to look forward to is seeing a young gun lead an old pro to victory yet again.
No. 7: Darian Grubb, No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet
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When Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing to form his own team, he knew exactly where to go for his equipment and engines. His organization runs cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, the top organization in NASCAR.
But, who was going to be the guy on the pit box giving him lap times, telling the adjustments, or telling him to calm down?
Ironically, the man named to be Stewart's crew chief starting in 2009 also came from the Hendrick stable, Darian Grubb. As a car chief, he knew the ins and outs of the cars Hendrick was running, but did get a chance to experience the life of a crew chief, but under bad circumstances.
In 2006, Jimmie Johnson lost crew chief Chad Knaus at Daytona and for the next month due to a rule violation. Grubb was named the replacement in Knaus' absence, and when he made the calls in the 2006 Daytona 500, it led to Johnson getting the biggest win of his career.
He would lead Johnson to two of the first three wins that season before Knaus came back. But, at that moment, he gained a lot of respect from the competitors.
Grubb was hired by Stewart to lead his team, and right away these two clicked. Stewart ran extremely well in his new car, and the entire team rallied around Grubb to keep them focused.
When the No. 14 team won the All-Star Race last year, that showed this entire team was for real and can win at any time.
Stewart led the points for a majority of the season, ending the year in the top-five following the Chase. Not bad for the first season. They got four wins on the season, and exceeded any of their expectations.
Grubb continues to make the Office Depot/Old Spice car one of the best on the track. Stewart may be nicknamed "Smoke," but Grubb sure ignited a lot of fire in him as well.
No. 6: Steve Addington, No. 2 Miller Lite Vortex Dodge
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In a way, Steve Addington decided to keep it in the family.
In 2008, Addington had the task of being on the pit box of Kyle Busch in his inaugural season with Joe Gibbs Racing. To say these two had a great year would be an understatement. Eight wins with a new team is unprecedented, but then things took a turn.
In 2009, the team did not have as much success, as he and Busch would only get three wins on the season.
Gibbs then decided a change was necessary, and decided it was in best interest of the team to bring Dave Rogers in for Busch.
But, Addington didn't have to wait long to find a new position.
With Kyle's brother, Kurt, losing his crew chief late in the season, Roger Penske landed Addington as a replacement. From one brother to another, and the combination has been phenomenal.
Kurt has won in Atlanta, and then went on to sweep Speed Weeks at Charlotte in May, something that was not done since 2003 with Jimmie Johnson. Kurt continues to run extremely well, staying competitive and has come close to get more wins on the season.
Addington has found that sometimes, it's best to stay with family.
The younger brother's loss has been the older brother's gain.
No. 5: Greg Zipadelli, No. 20 Home Depot Toyota
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It doesn't take long to develop a good relationship between driver and crew chief. However, it takes a lot of effort to maintain that relationship.
From 1999 through 2008, Greg Zipadelli was on the box for Tony Stewart. In his first year, Stewart got three wins and won rookie of the year, finishing in the top 10 in the points. One year later, he would be the most dominant driver in the win column with six trips to victory lane.
In both 2002 and 2005, Zipadelli and Stewart would hoist the championship at season's end.
It was one of the most successful driver-crew chief relationships NASCAR had seen, and it was sad to see the two split up after 2008.
But, Zipadelli took on the task of being the voice of reason for then-rookie Joey Logano, who had the near impossible task of taking over the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. However, this combination is proving to be a surprising, yet successful one.
Logano had some struggles in 2009 as he was not used to the car, and admitted he was in the series a year early. But, with the guidance of Zipadelli, Logano began to feel more comfortable, and Gibbs started to see a change in his young protege.
It was Zipadelli who made the critical call last year at New Hampshire to keep Logano on the track when the rain began falling. That call gave Logano his first win in Sprint Cup.
This year, Logano has been running extremely well compared to 2009. His confidence in his team is also much better, and his driving ability has greatly improved.
Call it gaining experience, or call it a veteran team helping a young gun. Zipadelli knows what he's doing on the pit box.
No. 4: Steve Letarte, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet
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Throughout Jeff Gordon's career in NASCAR, he has not had many crew chiefs guiding him to victory. When he came into the series in 1992, it was Ray Evernham on the box for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
Between than and 1999, Gordon would win four championships alongside Evernham.
From 2000 till the 2005 Chase, Robbie Loomis would make the calls for the lead driver in Hendrick Motorsports. The duo would win the championship in 2001, but it was failing to make the Chase that called for a change at the top.
Enter Steve Letarte, a man that had some experience at the position, but had the difficult task of getting the once-dominant driver back on track.
These two have experienced great success, and great heartache, but what makes Letarte so good is the fact that Gordon did not yield his support.
Since 2008, Gordon has only one victory to his credit (Texas, 2009).
The year before, Letarte led Gordon to six victories, his most successful season since he won the championship. If it was not for Johnson getting on a roll late in the Chase, Gordon had a strong chance of completing the "Drive for Five."
At times, people in the media, and fans alike, have wondered if Hendrick is going to pull Letarte from the No. 24 team for someone else. But, it has been Gordon who has been the most outspoken in keeping him with the team. He has made some good calls, while others have been questioned. But, Gordon never yielded from is support.
It's that kind of confidence that wins races and championships. Gordon has come so close this year to winning, but has not once blamed Letarte for the decisions he's made or the calls he made on pit road.
That is what makes him one of the best, driver confidence. If Gordon didn't have confidence in Letarte, he would have been out of a job a long time ago.
No. 3: Dave Rogers, No. 18 M&M's Toyota
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When you have a driver with the nickname "Rowdy," you need a crew chief that can not only keep a driver in check, but also keep himself in check because of the attitude.
Let's face it, Kyle Busch is passionate about this sport. There is no driver that is more intense on the race track, not since Dale Earnhardt. He would race a go-cart on a NASCAR track if he could, but he just simply wants to race.
Dave Rogers is the man in the pits making the calls to get Busch to the front. After spending two seasons mentoring Joey Logano in the Nationwide Series, Rogers was tabbed to take over for Steve Addington following the 2009 fall race at Talladega.
These two have knocked heads on the radio, and have argued about some calls made in the race, but complement each other very well.
Busch has three wins this year and currently finds himself third in the standings, practically locked into the 2010 Chase for the Cup. Busch is still as aggressive on the track, and still has the same no-nonsense attitude on the radio.
But, Rogers has been able to keep Busch in check and has shown he can get the job done. There's been nothing but praise from the team and the driver.
What more can you ask for?
No. 2: Gil Martin, No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet
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Harvick didn't get the title of "Mr. Where'd He Come From" just because he can drive the car. It takes a lot of effort for him to make strides in a race.
The man at the helm, Gil Martin.
This year especially, Martin has shown that Harvick can be a title contender if he is given the opportunity. Harvick won the Bud Shootout to start the year, but has shown the entire season that he's one of the best cars on the track.
But, the thing about this duo is that for a majority of these races Harvick had to work his way from the back to the front. Qualifying has not been his strong suit, but when it comes to the actual race, Harvick knows he will get the job done. It's Martin making the adjustments to make the Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet better as the race progresses.
Martin was able to get Harvick in the right position earlier this year at Talladega when he got his driver near the front for the green-white-checked finishes.
That afternoon, the No. 29 was getting showered with champagne and Coca-Cola in victory.
Then, earlier this month Martin made all the right adjustment calls and got Harvick to the front early. Harvick then did his job and kept the car out front all afternoon.
With Harvick leading the points now, making the right calls is critical as the Chase looms. But, Martin seems to have the situation under control.
No. 1: Chad Knaus, No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet
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To coin the famous line from Ric Flair, to be the man, you have to beat the man.
In NASCAR, you have to beat one man on the track but also have to beat another in the pits. That combination is Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
When these two were paired up in 2002, instantly everyone knew they would be successful. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500, then gambling on a fuel-only stop at California to get victory.
Year after year, the two proved they were going to be hard to beat, but in 2006 these two broke through and won their first championship. What happened after that, is simply one for the record books.
Knaus has been able to show you can run well during the season, or have a lackluster effort at some points, but the important time to run hard is in the final 10 races. Right now, Knaus is the best at getting the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet to run at the front in the Chase, which is when it matters the most.
He's also been able to overcome some bad weekends at the track. Suspensions because of rule violations, bad running cars, and other incidents have marred his career. But, when those ten races approach, the is no one better at making a car run at the front.
Johnson has experienced an off-year in 2010 and has not been able to get the momentum he's used to having entering the Chase.
That's not to say he won't get it in the next two races, but Knaus has some magic to work this time. He may need to pull some Chris Angel miracle if he wants to win again.
However, overall, there is no crew chief better in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series than Knaus. There is no better team when it's all on the line than the No. 48 team.
To be the man, you have to beat the man. So far, no one has beat Knaus yet.