Crew chiefs are variously described as team leaders, or even as the quarterback of the team. That part is obvious. What many fans may not know is that the crew chief is much more than just the guy in charge in the shop and in the garage.
Once the green flag drops, the performance of the race car is out of the hands of the crew chief and in the hands of the driver. At that point, the crew chief sits more or less helplessly on the pit box, listening to the spotter talking his driver though the traffic. He watches his driver's lap times.
He gauges the driver's performance on the track. He makes plans, and then dashes them as events unfold. He talks to his crew, getting them ready for any eventuality. He tries to think ahead to the next pit stop. More importantly, he tries to think ahead to the last pit stop of the race.
During the week, the crew chief acts as the shop foreman. He directs his crew as to what they need to do to get the cars set up properly. I say cars, because the teams take two to the race track.
On travel day, they load up the cars and the hauler takes off, whether to Lowes Motor Speedway just down the road in Concord, NC, or to Sonoma, California or Brooklyn, Michigan.
NASCAR travels all over the country, so long airplane flights are part of the job as well. Along with the car chief, the crew chief directs every single task performed on the race cars.
On race weekends, the crew chief becomes the statistician. He watches lap times during practice and qualifying. He looks at the tires that come off the car after it's run laps. He looks at the spark plugs. He looks at the lifters and the valves. He measures fuel mileage on long runs during practice. He's writing on his clipboard, taking down the data.
On race day, the crew chief transforms into not only the boss of the team, but his driver's primary cheerleader.
Along with the spotter, the crew chief's job is to keep the driver focused on the task ahead of him. Whether it be maintaining a lead, or trying to pass the cars in front of him in order to gain better track position.
All the while, the crew chief remains in statistician mode. He's gauging lap times against fuel mileage.
He's looking at options such as short pitting, two tires or four, up or down on the track bar or air pressures. He's sitting on the pit box, but he's working as hard as his driver is. He looks calm, but he's nervous.
He didn't get to his position by being naive about anything in this sport. He knows his crew and his driver, and he, himself have to perform perfectly to get his driver into victory lane.
Another quality that's required of a crew chief is to have good relationship with his driver. The driver often gets cranky on the track, in the heat of battle.
It's the crew chief's job to decipher the clues that his driver is giving him about the car's performance.
Some drivers are better at giving feedback than others, but a good crew chief can simply watch the car and know what changes need to take place, should he be working with a young or inexperienced driver.
The crew chief tries to calm his driver down when he gets frustrated. He tries to tell his driver to save fuel if he can.
He basically becomes the driver's best friend. Chemistry between driver and crew chief is more important than many people realize.
When it comes right down to it, a great driver can only be a good driver with a so-so crew chief. A great crew chief can make a so-so driver look great though.