Amy Henderson · Thursday October 14, 2010
Everybody’s heard the complaints-this driver would be nothing without his crew chief; that one’s crew chief is holding him back. As evidenced by the recent announcement that Kenny Francis will move with Kasey Kahne to Team Red Bull in 2011 and on to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, the right combination is key to the success of today’s teams. But can a crew chief alone make or break a team?
The answer is no. But the chemistry between driver and crew chief most certainly can.
Francis’ move to HMS will create an overabundance of crew chiefs, and it’s likely that one will be reassigned within the organization. There are a few possibilities for this one. As I see it, the most likely scenario will have Alan Gustafson taking the reins of the No. 88 unless the combination of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Lance McGrew suddenly clicks to the tune of multiple race wins. That would free up McGrew to return to the Nationwide Series, where he excels, possibly with JR Motorsports’ No. 7, which has struggled somewhat. Other, less likely possibilities could include Chad Knaus moving into a leadership role with the Hendrick organization or a parting of ways between Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte.
The Hendrick organization was one of the first to really pay close attention to the driver-crew chief relationship. Jeff Gordon was set to sign with Bill Davis Racing in 1992, but the dealbreaker for Gordon was that Davis wouldn’t allow him to bring his hand-picked crew chief, Ray Evernham, along for the ride. Rick Hendrick stepped in, offered Gordon and Evernham the No. 24 together, and the rest is history. Gordon and Evernham won three championships together in the 1990s while Gordon was a dominant force in the series. Hendrick also brought crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. to the organization along with Earnhardt, Jr. at the driver’s request.
While Jimmie Johnson didn’t bring Chad Knaus to the organization, Hendrick has gone to great lengths to keep the pair together, including a recent five-year contract extension for both that will keep them together for the foreseeable future, unless Knaus should decide to move up within the organization. And the contract extension wasn’t the only thing Hendrick did to keep them together – the now infamous milk-and-cookies meeting was proof positive that Hendrick understands the value of chemistry in the sport.
Kahne isn’t bringing Francis along just for the fun of it, either. Since 2006, Kahne and Francis have amassed 10 wins, accounting for all but one of Kahne’s career total. Francis has guided Kanhe to 64 top-10 finishes and 13 poles as well.
But while these relationships are key to the success of a team, a crew chief does not make or break a team. While many fans are quick to blame Eury, Jr. and McGrew for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s recent woes, they aren’t the entire reason, and it’s unfair to either man to lay it all on his shoulders. The lion’s share of Earnhardt’s wins came with Tony Eury, Sr. on top of the pit box, and there was a great chemistry there to be sure. But it wasn’t all Earnhardt and it wasn’t all Eury. Earnhardt, Jr. had to drive cars, and Eury had to build them.
Nor is the glory entirely the crew chief’s, though some fans would like to believe that. Chad Knaus never brought Stacy Compton anything close to the level of success that he’s shared with Johnson, and Ray Evernham was never able to find the magic he shared with Gordon afterward as an owner, although Evernham wasn’t a full-time crew chief with his own team. Gordon has a championship with another crew chief, Robbie Loomis, and could easily have two more, while Johnson, who has never had a crew chief other than Knaus at the Cup level, did have two top-10 points seasons in the then-Busch Series.
But in all those cases, the chemistry is still evident in the teams’ success. Evernham and Gordon were unstoppable in the 1990s, Earnhardt, Jr. and Eury were stars on the rise in the early 2000s, and Johnson and Knaus have proven nearly unbeatable for five long years. Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli, Robbie Reiser and Matt Kenseth are also strong evidence that chemistry is more than just a science class.
Kahne and Francis are looking to become that dominant pair next. The pieces are in place with a team owner who understands better than anyone – to the tune of nine Cup titles – how important their relationship is. He’ll give them the chance and the equipment. It’s up to them to find the magic.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
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