Change in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage is expected and constant. It has a name—"silly season"—for good reasons. But the weeks 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 weeks into the offseason was preceded by some solid adjustments.
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.
Crew chief for Tony Stewart Darian Grubb 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 since most contracts are for three years, 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.
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.
Joe Gibbs Racing lost Greg Zippadelli to Stewart Haas Racing where he will be competition director and crew chief for Danica Patrick.
Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Jason Ratcliff to replace Zippadelli in the No. 20 car of Joey Logano.
Busch’s empty seat in the Penske No. 22 Dodge went to AJ Allmendinger after sponsor Best Buy cut back its primary exposure and moved to Roush Fenway on Matt Kenseth’s car for nine races and two races for Carl Edwards.
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.
But just when all thought it couldn’t get much dizzier Kurt Busch signed with single-car team Phoenix Racing owned by James Finch.
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 on poor results.
Greg Zipadelli summed it up for crew chiefs during a recent SHR teleconference.
“You look at how everything is mixed up this year,” Zipadelli said. “Everybody is looking for that magic. The stress of and pressure of making the Chase—If you don’t make the Chase everybody is making a lot more changes a lot more rapid than what we’ve seen in the past. It’s a product of our sport and how important it is to perform.
“The life span of a crew chief is as long as you perform. That’s what it has come to today.”
The same thing can be said of drivers.
The consequences of the dramatic changes obviously will not be known till 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-time 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.
Kurt Busch may take Phoenix Racing to new heights.
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 2011.
Then again, rapid and frequent changes might be the new norm for NASCAR.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of motorsports topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained from official release materials provided by the NASCAR sanction, team or track representatives.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum at Racetake.com.