The Frontstretch: How Important Is The Crew Chief? With Matt Kenseth, Not Very by Kurt Smith -- Thursday April 1, 2010

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Recently in a Mirror Driving column there was debate about why Jimmie Johnson doesn’t seem to be getting recognition as one of the all-time greats in the sport. Several answers were offered, from the format in which his championships were earned, to his first class equipment, to his apparent lack of sufficient road rage. And one more strike against giving Johnson the recognition he deserves is the manic mechanic on the pit box.

I’ve called Chad Knaus the best crew chief in NASCAR history in these pages, and this assertion is not borne out of any desire to deny Jimmie Johnson his due. Johnson is truly one of the all-time greats behind the wheel as well, and when the dust clears it will be difficult to question the numbers, no matter how great Knaus’s contribution. But somehow I doubt that he’d have been holding up a fourth straight Cup with a merely average crew chief calling the shots. Knaus is so brutally efficient at winning that the No. 48 team has already stolen a couple of wins this year just on reputation.

For all the glory the driver commands in this sport, each driver’s individual success is probably related more to the team than anything else. Every pit stop is huge and every lugnut matters, but the only person whose name is well-known is the crew chief. Throughout his career, there hasn’t been an openly public urging for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to change spotters.

That said, Matt Kenseth is proving this year that the driver does matter a little more than so-called experts might think.

Kenseth came within a few inches of taking the win at Martinsville this last Monday, one week after a fifth place finish at Bristol. Currently Kenseth is third in the standings even with the eventual 18th at the paper clip. This makes him the second highest of Roush Fenway drivers, with Greg Biffle consistently top tenning his way to second in points. Once again Matt Kenseth is under the radar, and once again he is a legitimate title threat.

The No. 17 team had a pretty good act going for a while with Robbie Reiser calling the shots. Kenseth bested Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year honors in 2000, and three years later he was hoisting the Winston Cup following a season of miserably awful qualifying efforts and remarkable consistency bringing the car through the field. It would have been hard to argue that Reiser was one of the best head wrenches out there, considering how frequently the No. 17 car could start 37th and finish eighth week after week.

The next four seasons were the first four in the we-need-more-cowbell Chase era, and Kenseth qualified for each playoff—doing so with an impressive comeback from 24th place in 2005 when only ten drivers made the Chase—and finished eighth, seventh, a close second and fourth in those years.

Then Robbie Reiser departed as crew chief at the end of 2007, leaving fans of the No. 17 team to wonder whether the lost chemistry between the two would mean the end of Kenseth’s Reign of Consistent Contention.

Though the sponsors and crew chiefs have changed aplenty for Matt Kenseth the past few seasons, the driver referred to as “a robot” has methodically remained a contender for wins and Cup titles.

Kenseth didn’t win any races in 2008 with Chip Bolin as the crew chief, but he did make the playoffs again. His 11th place finish in the standings was largely a result of Chase DNFs at Loudon and Talladega and a crash at Kansas. In the other Chase races, the No. 17 scored three top 5s and five top 10s. Kenseth finished the season with nine top 5s and 20 top 10s…hardly a subpar effort.

Despite this, Bolin was replaced with Drew Blickensderfer in 2009, and Kenseth must have wanted to make a good impression early, winning the first two races. Kenseth missed the Chase by just a few points for the first time, but this was hardly a crew chief issue; the testing ban put a serious crimp in Roush Fenway’s intermediate prowess and the entire team struggled all year. Only Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle made the Chase, and neither of them made any noise in the last ten.

With Robbie Reiser, Kenseth averaged almost ten top 5s and 17.5 top 10s a season. In 2008 with Chip Bolin he scored nine top 5s and 20 top 10s, and in 2009 with Drew Blickensderfer he scored seven top 5s and 12 top 10s in Roush Fenway’s worst season in years. Such consistency is extraordinary given the instability of crew chief musical chairs on the team, with Todd Parrott, who has taken over for Blix on the box, being Kenseth’s fourth crew chief in four seasons.

Six races into the season in a No. 17 car that has changed crew chiefs, sponsors, and co-owners, there sits the only constant, driver Matt Kenseth, with three top 5s and five top 10s in six races…and a near win knocked down to an 18th being the sixth race. Had Kenseth taken the winning points at Martinsville, he would be the points leader.

You get the feeling a bottle of shampoo could be placed on the pit box and Matt would interpret its silence correctly enough to get a top 10 finish out of the car.

Maybe there’s enough team solidarity in the No. 17 garage to overcome a huge change in personnel like a new head wrench. Or maybe Kenseth’s crew chiefs were all very capable and established mechanics. After all, Parrott did win a championship with Dale Jarrett.

I’m not trying to be critical in the slightest of any of them. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Jack Roush is all that astute a judge of crew chief talent, though, given the story of his not hiring Jeff Gordon when his stepfather suggested that Ray Evernham be part of the deal.

At the very least, we do know that the driver of the No. 17 car doesn’t need a “getting to know you” period. I’m not implicating anyone in particular, but that can’t be said about every driver out there.

Jimmie Johnson may not get his just due as a wheelman, but Matt Kenseth shares an almost similar lack of appreciation.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • OK, so now since one of the best ever Martinsville events was on Monday when everyone had to work, do you think NASCAR may point to the low ratings and say that fans aren’t as attached to Martinsville as some commentators think?
  • In the wake of the classic finish at Martinsville, Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds, our own Tom Bowles and many others pointed out how the track lends itself to great racing. Yet it may be in danger of losing a date to Kansas, a track still best known for a race that ended because of darkness. The sting of losing classic tracks might not be so bad if the sport built some unique tracks to replace them and focused on the racing rather than the casinos.
  • Jimmie Johnson came up short of the Martinsville win because the No. 48 team was experimenting—“trying goofy stuff” as Johnson put it. Before Monday the team had won five of the last six races there. How much better do they need to be? That’s Knaus for you…he wants to win six of the next six. And lead the most laps.
  • Is it me or has there been a lot of rain on NASCAR’s parade lately? The Daytona 500 was called off early last year and David Reutimann and Joey Logano scored wins on rain shortened races, and this year hasn’t been any different. It even rained in Vegas for crying out loud. There is literally a black cloud over NASCAR these days. Don’t ask me why.

Contact Kurt Smith

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wcfan
04/02/2010 12:17 AM
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Kurt,
I have to agree about Chad being a great crew chief, not afraid to push the limits or work in the “dark gray” areas.
I seem to remember this same talk about Jeff Gordon back about 10 yrs ago before Ray left.
Jeff and Jimmie’s wins are close 47 for Jeff in 7 yrs and 47 for Jimmie in 8 yrs.
When you have a team that has very little turnover year to year it can make the “WHOLE TEAM” look great with no one superstar.
If and when Jimmie ever starts having the turnover problems same of the great drivers experienced, he will then start to get more recognition.
Right now he is an exceptional driver taking advantage of the best crew chief and equipment in the garage area.
For anyone wondering I am NOT A FAN of RICK HENDRICK or anyone who drives for him.

Robert Eastman
04/02/2010 08:38 AM
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This IS the dumbest article I’ve ever read!
Crew chiefs (and coaches?) don’t matter? Give us all a break from such stupidity! If the point is… Matt Kenseth is very adaptable and able to work with anyone that has competence, then that idea may have some merit.
The way the article is written projects that any idiot can sit on the pitbox and win races, which proclaims loud and clear the complete ignorance of the writer!

Hammond Knot
04/02/2010 08:50 AM
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I had the pleasure of watching Kenseth win the Title at the Rock, he is a smart driver and always tries to put his car were it needs to be in order to finish the race in the top 10 or for the win. I disapprove of the media trying to compare Edwards to Daivd Pearson, Matt Kenseth is David Pearson!!!! Hands Down, he drives like Pearson takes care of his equipment like Pearson and if they hadn’t changed the Cup format the year after Kenseth won the title, I think we would see Matt with at least 3 titles.

People forget that the whole reason for the stupid Chase format was because NASCAR couldn’t stand the fact the Kenesth was so freaking consisatnt that he had the Cup Series Won and spanked everybody by 200+ points with more than 6 races left to the season……
Kenesth is a Wheel Man hands down……

Lets face facts…..
And let it be known I hate Jimmy Johnson with a passion!!! but man, Knaus is the Man! not since Smokey Yunick has there been a Crew Chief that could get every ounce of performance from a car and a driver.
Some drivers just have talent, some drivers have the man on the box…the others are just making laps…

Derek M.
04/02/2010 10:47 AM
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Ah hem… your Jimmie Johnson stats are off bud. Your love for him and chad K’s man love affair has oozed into your article, sad. Going into Monday’s race Johnson had won 5 of the last 7.. and now 5of8. Now Hamlin on the other hand has won 3 of the last 5.. and in reality should be swayed even more in his favor at 4of5 after Johnson clearly punted the #11 with less than 10 to go last Spring. So lets face it buddy.. the #48 should be 4 of the last 8.. and they weren’t trying anything “goofy”, figured you’d be smarter than buying into that hogwash. They were busy trying things to “catch up” with the #11 car. Facts are facts, and yours eyes saw the same thing my eyes saw. Take off the blinders.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
04/02/2010 11:28 AM
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Robert, read the article again. I said no such thing that the crew chief doesn’t matter, and I think I made the point that all of the 17’s crew chiefs are perfectly capable. If you think I was saying crew chiefs don’t matter, then you missed the point entirely.

Derek, you’re right. Jimmie won 5 of the last 7 races, not five of the last six as I said. Guess that completely obliterates my point that the 48 team dominates at Martinsville. My bad.

Fran
04/02/2010 01:32 PM
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I think Todd Parrott is one of the all time greats. When Jarrett dissed him, it took a while to learn that Jarrett was done. I am glad to see him get another chance with a good team.

Robert Eastman
04/02/2010 02:20 PM
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Kurt , you did say that a shampoo bottle could be on the pit box and Matt would still do well. That is a total offense to every racecar builder and mechanic who has labored, literally night and day, building racecars searching for the magical winning formula… and then through hard work, blood, sweat and tears… and years of education and experience, finally found it. If the crew chief doesn’t make a difference then why did Jeff Gordon win 47 times and 3 championships with Ray Evernham in less than 7 full seasons, but only 35(?)times and 1 championship in more than 10 seasons? Did he forget how to drive?
Since Todd Parrot arrived, Matt has been a top 5 competitor at every race just like the old days with Robby.
If crew chiefs aren’t the missing key, then why do teams pay big bucks to raid each others teams?
RCR specifically hired Larry Mac, so Dale E could win the Daytona 500 and after that, Mike Skinner suddenly became “a brilliant driver”… but only with Larry Mac as his crew chief.
Brian Vickers became competitive after Ryan Pemberton was hired. The list of teams that “suddenly do well” after they get a proven winning crew chief is quite long.
In the old days, Richard Petty said… “the car is 90% and the driver is 10% of winning!” Kurt Busch, after winning Atlanta said, “Now everyone knows that Steve Addington is the reason the Busch brothers win.”
How many teenage and early 20’s crew chiefs win in NASCAR? Certainly not as many as “super-young” drivers?
Why don’t you interview winning drivers (like Matt) and get their input on the importance of the crew chief, before you put forth such a ridiculous premise?

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
04/02/2010 03:27 PM
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Robert, the point of the article was to point out that through all of the crew chief changes Matt Kenseth has been very, very good. It’s meant to be praise of a great and underrated driver. It’s not the slightest bit of a dig on any other members of the racing profession. Believe me, I know how hard all of these guys work.

In the first couple of paragraphs of the article I state fairly clearly that Chad Knaus deserves a lot of credit for Johnson’s success. Later I point out what a mistake it was for Roush to be hardheaded about hiring Ray Evernham.

If you’re reading this article and believing it to be a dis of crew chiefs, it isn’t, Bob. The headline is meant to be somewhat sarcastic. The shampoo comment was a joke.

The Bear
04/02/2010 04:29 PM
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Kurt;unlike Robert E. I enjoyed your article!But one thing about it,was the crewchiefs Matt has had,he has been pretty familiar with.Drew was his crewchief in nationwide before going to Carl’s team and Chip has been with the #17 team pretty much all along as engineer.But you still make a lot of good points! I just pray that Matt will be there all the way this year.He and Todd could be the best team to challange the #48 this year!!!

Robert Eastman
04/02/2010 05:58 PM
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I’m a “Super-Fan” of great crew-chiefs (including TP and RR) and get “testy” because the average fan doesn’t appreciate how truly brilliant these guys are and most of the time they don’t receive the recognition they deserve! Too many times average drivers get the glory for the performance of “great cars,” but then often times run-out of talent (or emotional strength)… crash, and then play the “blame-game!” Most of the “great drivers” like Matt, grew up “slaving over their cars” and don’t purposely wreck their fellow competitors. When one invests “thousands and thousands of hours” of their life building and working on racecars, they gain an awesome respect for the “truly great craftsmen” that participate in our sport!

Richard in N.C.
04/02/2010 06:22 PM
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Enjoyed the article, but I believe you came to exactly the wrong conclusion. I believe Kenseth’s success this year proves how important a good crew chief, like Todd Parrott, is – and I believe there has been little turnover on Kenseth’s team since Reiser moved up except for the crew chief and maybe engineer. Alternatively, I guess I should assume that Drew. B. is dumber than a bottle of shampoo.

Sean
04/03/2010 12:12 PM
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Kenseth is having his best results since Reiser because Parrott IS one of the great crew chiefs. I would probably rank him third of the last 20 years behind only Evernham and Knaus. Todd Parrott put ELLIOTT SADLER in the chase. I’ll have that speak for itself.

Steve S.
04/04/2010 12:37 AM
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I think the driver / crew chief chemistry is extremely important for good results. For instance, at both Bristol and Martinsville Matt started out fairly close to the front but dropped back and they used 2 tire stops to get back up close to the front while he related to Todd what the car was doing and they had a chance to figure out what changes to make to keep it up front. I do not believe he had that with Chip or Drew. When the driver does not have that level of communication and trust he has to be thinking about making the car better himself AND concentrating on his driving which takes away from overall consistency week in and week out.

I do agree with the comparison of David Pearson and Matt Kenseth about being invisable all day and then suddenly there at the end and getting the car ready for the last 100 laps/miles is key for that. But some of that invisability has to do with the bobble heads and their manlove for certain drivers/teams.

Oh and the other drivers that need that ‘getting to know you period’ or what ever you called it seem to maybe not understand the inner workings of the car and have problems communicating what it is really doing out there to the crew chief and it takes the crew chief longer to understand how to read between the lines and come up with what he needs to do to make the car to the drivers liking.

Thanks,
Steve

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