Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Thursday April 20, 2006
NASCAR racing has become a very results oriented business. If you don’t produce, there is someone right behind you who thinks they can do better, and they’ll take your job in a heartbeat. That warning doesn’t just apply to drivers, either. If you are a tire changer, and you are the last one to tighten a lug nut on several stops in a row, you better start looking for a new place to hang your impact wrench bag. If you jack cars, and the tire changers have to wait on you to get the car in the air on the left side a few times, it might be time to go to trade school. And if you are a crew chief, and the chemistry isn’t quite there, it is a good idea to make sure your resume is up to date.
This “shape up or ship out” routine was never more evident than in the last two weeks in NASCAR. The madness began in the Truck Series; with only one finish for Ron Hornaday, Jr. in the Top 15 in the first four races, Kevin Harvick, Inc. and crew chief Chris Rice decided to part ways. Just four races into the season, Rice was gone; it doesn’t get much quicker than that.
Meanwhile, there are eight races in the books for the Busch Series, and the shuffling in the last week over there has been rather amazing. A.J. Foyt IV was released from his ride at Braun Racing after failing to finish any of his events this season. A rookie in the Busch series, Foyt has been struggling to get a handle on full bodied cars, but he wasn’t given even half a season to get acclimated to them. With Braun merging with Akins Motorsports and changing their cars from Dodge to Chevrolet, they found the out in their contract they needed to dump Foyt. Foyt is under contract with Evernham Motorsports, who fields Dodges, so “technically” Foyt was ousted because of the conflict, although his performance couldn’t have helped things any.
Also in the Busch Series, another struggling rookie, Chris Wimmer, was released from his ride with Keith Coleman Racing. Most surprising of all, though, was the release of Jason Keller by Phoenix Racing. Keller has a streak of 279 consecutive starts in the Busch Series. He has run solidly this year and is currently 12th in Busch Points. Keller is sixth among the full-time Busch series drivers and has been in contention for the Busch Series Championship in the past.
With Trucks and Busch already making changes, you can bet the Cup series wouldn’t be immune to them, either. either. Chip Ganassi racing made a crew chief change on the #40 car, moving Jeff Vandermoss from crew chief of the #40 to car chief of the #41, while Steve Lane switched from car chief of the #41 to crew chief of the #40. Andy Graves also resigned his position as team manager and is going to be reassigned within the organization. At Roush Racing, Bob Osborne, who was the mastermind of Carl Edwards’ fantastic run last year, has been moved over to the #26 to oversee Jamie McMurray’s efforts for Roush. Jimmy Fennig, formerly McMurray’s crew chief, is going to head up Roush’s Busch Series program, while Wally Brown is going to take over the #99 Nextel Cup team.
What do each and every one of these changes have in common? They all involve teams that are not performing up to expectations. In the old days, a driver and crew chief would have a year or two to try and work together to see if they could form a successful union. With the Chase for the Championship format, time is no longer a luxury. Teams have to perform in the first handful of races, or changes have to take place. Teams only have 26 races to get things done, the shortest “regular season” NASCAR’s ever had in the modern era. In the Busch Series, meanwhile, there are Buschwhackers taking away a lot of opportunities from the Busch only teams. The Busch regulars have to finish high among their compatriots who are only competing on the Busch series, or they are going to be out quickly in the face of increasing pressure.
Why is there such an emphasis on “win now?” In a word, sponsors. Sponsors are putting millions of dollars into this sport. Even at the Busch level, companies are sinking a large amount of their advertising budgets into sponsoring these cars. Because of this investment, and the amount of material produced with a driver’s face on it, teams are forced to make changes that will not cost their sponsors money. A sponsor is not going to be too keen on reprinting all of their advertising that has a driver’s likeness on it. So a team has to move the next most important cog in the machine: the crew chief. A classic example is the #40 team for Ganassi racing. Felix Sabates came out last year and said, in so many words, that Sterling Marlin was out because Coors wanted a younger face to promote their product. Coors has obviously dumped a lot of money into their advertising with their driver that they hand-selected for their car. They’re certainly not going to endorse dumping that driver after only seven races. So Ganassi has to make a move at the crew chief position to try and jump start the team, despite arguably poor performances by Stremme on the track.
It’s simply the bottom line in NASCAR today: You better put up some decent results, pretty early in the schedule, or you are going to be looking for another job, no matter whether you’re a rookie or a veteran, a crew chief or a tire changer. It’s a cruel world this time of year, one in which the question is asked many people don’t want to hear…
What have you done for me lately?
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