One element remains constant about change in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage—it’s expected and constant. It's called the silly season for good reasons. But the months leading up to the 2012 season seemed to be rife with driver changes, crew chief moves and team closures.
The coveted 43 seats in the top racing series in motorsports are always rare and special. Each ride has only one crew chief or 43 pit box seats. Many capable drivers and crew chiefs never rise to that top level because of the scarcity of positions.
Actually, the volatile 2011 silly season during the waning weeks of the season and first weeks of the offseason was preceded by some solid adjustments.
Kasey Kahne had a productive Red Bull year while his 2012 Hendrick Motorsports contract awaited him and crew chief Kenny Francis.
Red Bull Racing team announced early they will be leaving NASCAR and shut down several weeks after the finale in Homestead.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed a five-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports well before the end of the race days.
Carl Edwards was lured by Joe Gibbs but resigned at Roush Racing and concentrated on the Chase that slipped away only in the final laps at Homestead.
Clint Bowyer couldn’t come to terms with RCR, the team that brought him from short tracks to the big time, and signed with Michael Waltrip Racing. MWR terminated David Reutimann and brought in Mark Martin for another retirement tour, this one shortened to 25 Cup races.
Crew chief Brian Pattie lost his job with Juan Pablo Montoya in July, but signed with MWR to assist Clint Bowyer.
Darian Grubb, the crew chief for Tony Stewart, was told he will be terminated weeks before winning the NSCS championship with Stewart.
Steve Addington left Penske Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing as crew chief for Tony Stewart.
Shortly after Addington departed, Kurt Busch appeared to be fired by Penske for yet another outburst with a media member. Later, Penske and Busch called the termination a mutual decision. Kurt Busch came to Penske in 2006, and with typically three-year contracts no doubt was without a contract as soon as the season ended.
Penske released him, by mutual consent, of course. Busch may have a hard time returning to a top NSCS team.
David Ragan was released from Roush Fenway because they could not secure a sponsor. Ragan is actively seeking Busch’s empty seat in the Penske No. 22 Dodge.
Crew Chief Mike Ford lost his spot with from Denny Hamlin’s No 11 team by Joe Gibbs. Joe Gibbs signed the SHR dismissed Darian Grubb.
The sum of all these dramatic changes could cause dizziness it seems, but all the shifting might be good for some teams, dismal for others. The chemistry developed by teams is often elusive and stubborn. When it’s right, it’s really right. When it’s off, it doesn’t have to be off by much to bring consistent poor results.
The consequences of the dramatic changes obviously will not be known until 2012, but some teams are positioned well.
Hendrick Motorsports has added strength with the Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis combination. All crew chiefs share data in the HMS camp and Francis may add much to the total team effort.
Darian Grubb brings his long experience with Chevrolet to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. Grubbs may contribute much to Toyota engineering and hence be a difference-maker beyond his seat on top of the No. 11 pit box.
What might not be apparent to fans is that several drivers and crew chiefs are seeking new rides, but many more team members have been or are being terminated. Crew members are affected by teams leaving NASCAR (Red Bull) and teams cutting back (Roush Fenway) as that shrinks the job market with top organizations.
The best paying team jobs are now scarce and teams without top resources hire fewer crew members at lower wages.
So as dismal as that reality is for many team members, those with jobs in restructured teams face uncertainty, too.
As stated the effects of this bizarre silly season will not be known for many weeks to come, but it’s likely to assume that some changes will work and others will fail.
Some drivers, crew chiefs and teams may rise to new levels of competition while others may falter and be a part of the next wave of changes.
One reality remains—it will take many dramatic adjustments to match the uncertainty and changes of season 2011.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum at Racetake.com.