The Frontstretch: Drivers As Leaders? Not If You Listen to Team Radios by Doug Turnbull -- Monday June 14, 2010

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Drivers As Leaders? Not If You Listen to Team Radios

The Cool Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday June 14, 2010


“I told him my job as the leader is to do everything I can to win that race.”

These are the words of Denny Hamlin, spoken just after his tussle with teammate Kyle Busch in the All-Star race last month. Less than a week later, Hamlin reiterated that not only was he the leader of his No. 11 team, but that he also felt the necessity to step up and assume that role as the senior driver at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now in his fifth full Sprint Cup season, Hamlin seems to soak up the role, and certainly has matured from the days when he used to throw his crew under the bus on national television. It’s a great thing to utter those words the second he emerges from the car; but what’s even better is he’s also the same type of man inside it.

So, who is the leader of the race team? The driver yelling at his crew, or the crew chief cheering on the driver, as Brian Pattie often does during Juan Pablo Montoya’s on-track outbursts?

Fans have heard for years the dynamic of a race team explained to them. The driver essentially is the star quarterback, while the crew chief is the head coach, and the pit crew is the offensive line. This analogy makes sense, since the team’s finish lies mostly on the decisions the driver makes on the track. The choices the crew chief makes in the pits, on the car, and at the shop also highly influence the performance of the race team as a whole, but he can’t drive the car or change tires, making him the “motivator” responsible for getting the best out of everyone once the green flag drops. Finally, the pit crew plays as one unit to preserve the racecar’s track position.

In football, the quarterback position is not taken lightly. Players that cannot handle the pressure of both being the center of every play and rallying their teammates rarely, if ever, have staying power in the NFL (see: JaMarcus Russell). However, the “drivers as quarterbacks” analogy may be seriously flawed in stock car racing.

NASCAR is unique among sports in that fans can hear almost all the talk between members of race teams during the race. With access to scanners and Sprint FanView at racetracks and programs like TrackPass Scanner on computers, as well as the mobile NASCAR option on Sprint phones, diehard race fans can tap into unfiltered insider communications. In doing so, the public gets the opportunity to hear what the public relations armada does not want the masses to hear: adversity.

If drivers are supposed to be the leaders of race teams, as Hamlin believes he is with the No. 11 FedEx crew, then their communications with the crew that supports them needs to change. At least once in almost every telecast, a transmission is aired of a driver going off on the pit crew or crew chief because of a bad stop or adjustment. Just last week, such audio could be heard on the No. 2 Miller Lite team channel, showing a dark side of one of this year’s title contenders. Driver Kurt Busch had to make a green flag pit stop just after a restart, because the cap was left off the valve stem on one of his newly attached tires. This sent the 2004 champ on a tirade comparable of an actress walking into a green room, then laying into her manager for stocking Coke Classic instead of Diet Coke.

Of course, that’s only the latest such incident for Busch, who already has chided elder head wrench Steve Addington (in his first year as Busch’s crew chief) many times before. After Addington made the wrong strategy late in a race that cost Busch a win earlier in the season, he yelled at him as if the man was a misbehaving child. Busch also infamously batted around former crew chief Pat Tryson at Martinsville in late 2008, even catching heat from owner Roger Penske in the process. Struggling with the handling of his racecar, Busch repeatedly asked if he could park their laps down, wrecked Dodge for the day. And as much of a Penske and Miller Lite team advocate as Busch is in front of the cameras, his satisfied solidarity seems contrived. How can a driver supposedly so in love and in tune with crew chief Pat Tryson (as he said they were to the press after their win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 2009) have meltdowns with the same person, then eventually chase them to another team? How could Busch essentially refuse to be a fill-in driver for teammate Brad Keselowski in the Talladega Nationwide Series race, as Penske said he did back in April? Do these traits seem to be those of a leader?

To find another example of this inconsistency, look no further than Busch’s younger brother and Addington’s former driver, Kyle Busch. Kyle has never professed to being a leader, but as we discussed earlier, sitting in the driver’s seat makes one the de facto holder of that position. Busch won eight races with Addington in a breakout 2008, Busch’s first with the No. 18 team, and then won four more in 2009. But Busch failed miserably in the Chase in 2008 and missed the playoffs altogether last season, prompting Addington’s departure from the team’s pit box before the end of the year. Busch and Addington visited AMS Victory Lane in 2008, a year before Kurt and Tryson, and were riding a familiar emotional high while displaying the same emotional camaraderie with one another. But Busch’s constant temper tantrums in adverse situations, along with his insistence on running for the Nationwide Series championship in 2009 deteriorated the relationship between the two.

Let’s see how long Addington lasts with Kurt, while we count out the number of times Dave Rogers gets cussed out and bossed around by Kyle.

The Busch brothers are not alone in their pathetic attempts at leadership. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the most notorious example of a radio basher, as he often mixes the diva qualities of Aretha Franklin and the foul mouth of Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family in his temper tantrums. Junior obviously has been struggling for most of the past six seasons and is frustrated, but his constant berating of former crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. and the already infamous episodes between himself and current wrench man Lance McGrew cross over the line of the criticism a leader – one who should be rallying his troops – should display. McGrew is one of the few crew chiefs who actually bite back at their driver, as he famously told Junior to stop complaining about the car’s handling at Bristol back in March, to get up on the wheel and be a better driver. Junior rallied back and finished seventh in that race. But how long can a driver grate on a crew chief and a team before both give up on him?

These are the most glaring examples of the leadership voids amongst Sprint Cup drivers. There are more. Tony Stewart got roasted by former crew chief Greg Zipadelli after throwing a temper tantrum at the Home Depot crew during Stewart’s last season in the No. 20 car. Kevin Harvick questioned his Nationwide Series crew’s abilities early this season after spending bundles of dough to train them last winter. Clint Bowyer often sounds scared and temperamental as he squeals about the deficiencies of his racecar to No. 33 crew chief Shane Wilson. And no matter the driver, it’s either the crew chief or the spotter who are almost always offering encouragement and motivation to all – often correcting the wheelman in the heat of the moment. Even four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson is often on the receiving end of wise words from the Superman of Crew Chiefs, Chad Knaus.

Maybe the dynamic has changed. Maybe drivers are simply expected to drive, while the crew chiefs and owners handle the motivation and leading of the race teams. Maybe the “drivers as quarterbacks” analogy is now anomalous. Well if that’s true, one needs to look no further than the example Denny Hamlin sets as the leader of his race team, which, by the way, has won four of the last nine Cup races and moved from 19th to third in the points in that span. Maybe Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford are onto something…

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on Doug also hosts podcasts on and

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06/14/2010 07:31 AM

I guess Kurt Busch’s 2005 championship campaign was an example of this “patheric attempt at leadership” you’re describing?

Dans Grandma
06/14/2010 08:05 AM

2004 campaign idiot. Kurt Busch was ’04 chumpion. You have no credability as a NASCAR fan, Dans Mom.

06/14/2010 09:02 AM

Haha… I guess missing by one year makes you the dumbest person on the face of the earth. You should know that. GOD!

06/14/2010 09:19 AM

WOW!! Dan’s got a tough family!!!

06/14/2010 09:29 AM

Sorry Grams, I guess my sarcasm is lost in the generation gap.

Kurt Busch had a serious offense where he “chirped” his tires and was pulled over and cited for driving under the influence of alcohol while trying to defend his NASCAR championship in 2005. Sounds like a poor example of leadership if you ask me. Even Jack Roush sat him out a few races for that.

I guess subtly has no credibility on this website.

06/14/2010 10:43 AM

The truth is , conversations between the crew and the driver is none of our business . It’s like listeming in on any conversation , if you aren’t directly involved in it , then it’s not your concern . Actually i think it’s creepy eavesdropping on what other people are saying .

06/14/2010 01:05 PM

I’ve been listening for a long time. Drivers telling their crew chiefs how they can improve the car is how you win races. Crew chiefs interpreting what the drivers say is the other side of the coin.

06/14/2010 02:47 PM

Of course you had Petty and Pearson winning far more races than any of todays drivers , and they won most if not all of their races without any radio communication with the pits at all .

06/16/2010 02:09 AM

Petty and Pearson also showed up to the track knowing there were only about 5 cars with the potential to win the race though too.

Just like in football you hear about the QB ripping guys when they mess up, the coach rips them too. The only difference is that we can hear it in NASCAR. It’s just as much motivation for the next time as anything. If I get ripped for doing something I know that I want to do things right to show that I know what I’m doing.

Think about it these guys get paid to work on the cars, it’s a performance based business and one pit stop can make the difference. If any of us messed up at work our boss would yell at us too. I agree that some guys do it a little more than others but their counted on to do their job and if they don’t do it right their going to get reprimanded so if crew chiefs or crew members don’t like hearing it they can go get a job somewhere else. I think crew chiefs get reimbursed pretty well for what they do, I’d take that kind of money to put up with someone yelling a few times a race.