The 10 Most Overrated Sprint Cup Crew Chiefs
Making it to the pinnacle of stock car racing, whether you're driving the car or driving the hauler, is an achievement above the talents and capabilities of most of the people on this earth. The hundreds of folks that keep the teams in the Sprint Cup Series running are there for a good reason they're all exceptionally talented at what they do.
Second on the ladder in terms of popularity, prestige, and respect in the Cup garage (behind only the driver) are the crew chiefs. These men call the shots behind the scenes on race day, and a costly mistake on a late-race pit stop can keep the best car on the track that day out of the winner's circle.
But not all crew chiefs are created equal. Not everybody can be Chad Knaus, a crew chief so on top of his game that he is viewed as nearly invincible by peers and spectators alike. Plenty of crew chiefs on the series' top circuit are prone to mistakes, or simply haven't done enough to have earned the position they're in. This list - the top 10 "overrated," for lack of a better word, crew chiefs on the circuit - isn't meant as a knock against any of these men - they're all very good at what they do - but their mistakes have kept them and their teams from ever achieving Knaus-esque heights.
This is the first assignment I've ever taken directly from a higher-up at Bleacher Report, and I have to say I'm a little concerned with the fallout. Quick story: A couple of months ago, I was writing a story for my own website, OpenWheelAmerica.com, about the lack of American drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series. I made an offhand, inaccurate, three word comment about a particular driver who wasn't the subject of the piece.
I didn't think anything of this sentence fragment until the next day, when his manager - a former Formula One pilot that never failed to score points in an F1 season in which he competed - sent me a lovely message asking me to explain myself.
Up until that point, I had no idea just how wide my base of readers had become. Getting that message taught me a few important lessons: never underestimate who's reading your stuff, and be careful with everything you say. (I also had to learn the always valuable skill of apology.)
So with those lessons in mind, and apologies in advance to anybody who's going to email me with a vendetta, the 10 most overrated crew chiefs in Sprint Cup, listed alphabetically:
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You have to wonder where Addington would be without the mercurial talents of Kyle Busch. There, I said it. Addington was powerless to keep Busch on track in the Chase in 2008, and couldn't even keep him in it last year, where Busch said that Addington-prepared cars didn't have the "right stuff" in them, leading to the crew chief's release. Addington did very little with Bobby Labonte, a past champion, behind the wheel of the No. 18, and even less with J.J. Yeley.
While Addington's pairing with older brother Kurt paid early dividends in the form of two wins, the Blue Deuce hasn't been considered a title threat in months, having slipped back to 10th in points. They probably won't miss the Chase, but you have to wonder if Addington can step up in the clutch and establish himself as a championship-caliber leader.
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Winning the Daytona 500 when it's your first Cup Series event is impressive. Winning the next weekend at California to go 2-for-2 is amazing. Managing to drop out of the Chase entirely in the next 22 races is an utter disaster, especially when your driver, Matt Kenseth, had previously never missed the Chase.
It was no secret in 2009 that Kenseth couldn't sustain the same confidence in Blick as he had in Robbie Reiser, and that led to his reassignment within the Roush Fenway Racing organization after an unsuccessful Daytona 500 title defense this year. "Mr. Perfect's" first two Cup wins might just be chalked up to beginner's luck.
Tony Eury Jr.
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Eury's no longer a Cup crew chief for a reason. When he and cousin/longtime partner/all-world marketing superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc., where they had seen plenty of success in the early to mid-2000s, to sport super power Hendrick Motorsports, fans expected nothing less than a championship. The Earnhardt-Eury pairing went from decent in 2008 to woefully underachieving in 2009 before they were split up.
Even if Hendrick traditionally has a car that lags behind all the rest, Eury had even failed to work well with his cousin in stretches at DEI, and the failures of his current Nationwide driver, Danica Patrick, can at least partially be chalked up to Eury's strategy of letting Patrick apply IndyCar terminology and driving styles to a stock car. It just doesn't work.
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It's not that Gustafson can't make the right calls with the right driver - he's seen success with Kyle Busch and Mark Martin in the past. But a great crew chief can take a mid-pack driver and make him better, or turn around a subpar season for a top driver. Gustafson couldn't get Casey Mears up front in Hendrick equipment in 2008, as the driver had been the year before, and it began a downward spiral in Mears' career that saw him searching for a ride most of this season.
Simply put, Gustafson hasn't been able to keep the 5 car up front on a consistent, year-to-year basis since Kyle Busch left the team. Martin nearly won the Chase last year - this year he may not even make it.
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When a crew chief makes a call that costs his driver a race, especially a race that his driver has in the bag, you have issues. Kerr's decision to tell Marcos Ambrose to coast at Sonoma was, in theory, a smart move... but what do you expect is going to happen when you shut your car off while coasting up one of the biggest hills on the track? The timing of the call was really, really bad - wait until your driver is going to be heading downhill, or at the very least is on level ground.
Kerr's also caught a couple of penalties over the past two years, one this year for a radiator pan that constituted added weight, and one last year, when gasman Jimmy Lane memorably chased down a runaway tire at Atlanta (the crew chief assumes responsibility for his team's actions). He also took the brunt of NASCAR's discipline in a 2008 incident that saw Robby Gordon Motorsports, his employer at the time, mount unapproved new Dodge bumpers to their car at Daytona. Oops.
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Most probably haven't heard of Lane, as he's a pretty anonymous crew chief for Front Row Motorsports and driver Travis Kvapil. Well, at least he was, until illegal bleeder valves on Kvapil's car at Pocono landed him a 12-race suspension and $100,000 fine. This dropped Kvapil's team from the top 35 in owners' points and amplified driver shuffling within the team's three cars, as FRM tried to keep fully-funded rookie Kevin Conway in every race.
Meanwhile, the explanation provided by the team when appealing two crew members' penalties - that "rogue elements" of the team had developed these valves - was simply unacceptable, whether it was true or not. A crew chief needs to be in control of his team, end of story. Lane wasn't, and he paid the price.
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Letarte gets a lot of the blame for the dip in Jeff Gordon's winning ways over the past few years. Letarte's semi-frequent decisions to make two-tire stops late in the race (Charlotte last year, and Las Vegas and Pocono this year, for example) gain Gordon track position in the short term, but the No. 24 falls back by the checkered flag without the fresh rubber.
Often, Gordon's finishes towards the front are in spite of such calls. Only scoring one win in the past two and a half seasons can't just be a dropoff in driver talent and clutch performance when the four-time champion actually been one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit over the past few years. Gordon does drive differently after taking a few hard hits in the past five years, but he can't have completely lost the ability to seal the deal... can he?
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Making the same errant four-tire call two weekends in a row is not the best way to instill confidence in your driver. This is especially the case when the driver in question, Juan Pablo Montoya, is an ex-Indianapolis 500 champion and Formula One race winner, who still only contends for victories on the tracks at which you would expect him to win (Indy and the two road courses).
The decision at Indianapolis wasn't a bad call for the other drivers whose crew chiefs made it, but putting the excitable Montoya in such a position was. Pattie should have known better than to put an aggressive driver, especially one acutely aware of how much better his car was than everybody else's, in a position to overdrive. You have to wonder how much the Watkins Glen win actually did to rebuild bridges within the team.
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Shiplett's done a precious little amount to establish himself as a crew chief at Richard Petty Motorsports, where everybody knows that Kenny Francis is "king" of the pit box (no pun intended). Recall in 2008 how he blasted Patrick Carpentier for failing to qualify at Talladega. Carpentier actually qualified faster than locked-in teammates Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler, but missed the race due to a crazy qualifying weekend that saw all of the go-or-go-homers atop the speed charts.
Though current driver A.J. Allmendinger hasn't been doing himself too many favors on the track lately, Shiplett's been unable to get the famed No. 43 up front, either. Allmendinger's usually one of the last cars on the lead lap at the end of the race. He hasn't finished better than his starting position since Loudon eight races ago, even though he completed every lap in six of those events.
Whoever Robby Gordon's Crew Chief Is
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The crew chief of the No. 7 has accrued at least one penalty in each of the six years of the team's existence. In addition, Gil Martin received a penalty as Gordon's crew chief towards the end of 2004, while the driver was still employed by Richard Childress Racing. We all know that Gordon is an intense competitor, and always has been, across a number of racing disciplines.
But why does his team get caught screwing with the rulebook so often? The infractions range from petty (unapproved decklid, Bob Temple, Martinsville 2005; unapproved camera shell, Gene Nead, Daytona 2007) to serious (unapproved intake manifold, Temple, Daytona 2005; unapproved front bumper, Frank Kerr, Daytona 2008). While the penalty from Daytona two years ago was rescinded, as the team accidentally received the wrong bumpers from partner Gillett Evernham Motorsports in a hasty switch from Ford to Dodge just weeks before the season, it doesn't detract from such a long history of penalties.
Add questionable pit calls in a handful of road course races, the only two events a year where Gordon has a reasonable shot at victory, and you might wonder just what is going on at RGM.