The Frontstretch: Crew Chief Revolving Doors: Could The No. 48's Pit Crew Be Next? by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 20, 2011

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Take heart, 4-ha8ters! After another festival of failures on pit road, the cracks are starting to show in the Five-Time champions. The sky is falling, Jimmie’s bawling, and Chad is crawling back to start, trying to figure out a way to salvage the season before the Chase starts.

Since 2002, what had been the hallmark of the Lowe’s racing franchise was the competency of the pit crew, and their obsessive-compulsive pursuit for precision and perfection has devolved into a weekly comedy of errors and horrors whenever Johnson comes to get tires and fuel.

Clearly not the team we have come to expect during the last decade, and certainly not one under the beating brow of crew chief Chad Knaus. What once had been one of the tightest core groups in motorsports is now a round robin of weekly tryouts, rosters, and put-me-in-coach-I’m-ready-to-play antics that have resulted in wedge wrenches left in windows, lug nuts knocked off wheels, and mediocre stops that have seen Johnson often having to drive over his head – and the capabilities of his car – to get back on the track what was lost in a few seconds on pit road.

From the outside, it appears that the move to turn athletes into mechanics has not developed as quickly as Knaus and company had believed. Last year’s late season pit crew swap with the No. 24 team worked out largely due to the folly of the No. 11 team in the final few laps at Phoenix – and the first five at Homestead. It was a controversial and questionable call, one that brought into question the concept of “team,” plus the long-standing tradition in racing of “dance with the one who brung you.” Now, the flavor of the week dice roll has turned into, “what have you done for me lately”.

To make matters worse, now the one advocate of the pit crew by committee camp is publicly pissed.

“I’ve been real patient all year trying to build [this team up],” said Johnson. “I’m running out of patience.”

Johnson’s tone is a far cry from sentiments echoed a few weeks earlier. Back then, the topic of the new pit crew competition was brought up along with some earlier season struggles, and the five-time champ didn’t so much as bat an eyebrow. Johnson noted that the relationship of driver and crew chief with the team was one of “good cop/bad cop,” knowing that Knaus’ reputation for being the strict taskmaster was offset by Jimmie’s laid-back, California-cool consolations. But that role has appeared to have all but evaporated, one race before the second largest event of the year – The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Johnson after rallying from a spin on lap 241 of 301, to finish fifth. “And the thing that’s tough to me is, I know these guys personally. I train with them, I work with them side by side, I have a friendship with them and a bond with them, and it just kills me to see them not succeed, because I know how bad they want it, and how hard they work for it. But, we’re getting to a crucial point in the season where we can’t have that stuff. I don’t know what the solution is, it’s out of my jurisdiction, sorry to say, but this off weekend I’m hoping we fix something, correct something – something needs to change.”

This isn’t to say that the No. 48 team is alone amongst those Chase contenders who have contemplated a major adjustment. After a season long stretch of failing to get the No. 16 3M Ford full of fuel, Greg Erwin was dismissed as crew chief for Greg Biffle – a position he had held since early 2007. Biffle was very vocal about the latest botched stop at Kansas, calling it over the radio “completely ****ing unacceptable.”

After serving as crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya since May of 2008, Brian Pattie was also replaced atop the war wagon on Tuesday at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Montoya currently resides 17th in points, 59 from the Top 10, a week before the race that he likely should have swept in ugly, dominating, not-even-close performances the prior two seasons. Jim Pohlman, who has been with the team in one capacity or another since 2006 will be point man next Sunday at IMS with JPM – with a pretty solid shot at winning a Cup race his first time out.

So what of this new pit crew tryout plan of the No. 48 team, anyway? What is the whole point of it? Stumbling through the season only to nail it by the time The Chase starts? Had Knaus seen Rudy one too many times? Has the process of winning Sprint Cup titles every year since 2006 finally gotten to be so routine and boring that he needed to spice things up a little?

As Winston Churchill once wrote, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

Which is appropriate considering the final outcome of the last five years come November. If you take a look at the Sprint Cup standings, you will note that the No. 48 team is sitting in second place, just 13 points out of first. In fact, the last team that actually beat the Lowe’s bunch for a title was the team themselves, back in 2005. That little fiasco of self-stumbling down the stretch nearly tore the team apart, a series of missteps that didn’t end until February of the following year. Come Daytona Speedweeks, Knaus was bounced from the premises – he installed an adjustable rear window on the No. 48 for qualifying.

But what was the end result of that mess? A Daytona 500 win, a dedication to those who Johnson deemed, “the haters” and a solid start to what would be the first of five championship rings.

So fear not, 48 fans; more than likely, Chad is luring everybody closer into a false sense of security before he wallops them over the head with a Kobalt crescent wrench. Either things get fixed in the next seven races, or he calls an audible and swaps out pit crews with one of the other three Hendrick teams who don’t consistently have trouble on pit road. We’ve all seen how this movie ends in the last five installments, and like a well-worn Rocky sequel, this one probably won’t turn out much different.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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07/20/2011 11:33 AM

Read a little about this yesterday. I would imagine that the “Hendrick Boss” will steal Martin’s crew. They seem to have been pretty good all year. They have taken everything else away from him to feed the rest of the drivers!!!

07/20/2011 11:41 AM

well count me among those who hope that this year is the year that someone else beats the 48 team in the 10 race trophy deal.

07/20/2011 11:56 AM

This is a fairly balanced article. I have noticed the pit road problema for a couple of years. I can’t argue with Chad’s approach but agree with JJ that the results are overdue. I would hate to go out and pass 50 cars in a race and still lose it on pit road. I don’t think the additional pressure is going to help but do know this team can come back from adversity better than any other. I look for them to make a serious run from here on out.

Bill B
07/20/2011 12:13 PM

Not taking anything away from the 48 team, but instead of whining about the bad luck they are encountering this year maybe they should be smiling about the good luck they’ve had the last several years. They are all a great bunch but you can’t win a championship (or most races) without luck.
With that said, I still think Chad has gotten a swelled head and thinks that he can control every aspect of destiny. As a result he is over-managing in an attempt to outsmart bad luck or mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen. The best make fewer but they still make them. That is why this rotating crew is not working. Cohesion and synergy are more important than having the 6 guys that had the best times in practice drills.

07/20/2011 04:15 PM

who in the world would ever take that advice. “they should be thankful for the last couple of years they did have luck.” I mean how pathetic does that really sound. The reason they do win so much is that they do not accept anything below the maximum they can get out of themselves. Your post sounds like a weak hearted soul who probally has a kid on those soccer teams where “everyone is a winner” and nobody keeps score. Life is tough and winners come out on top. I almost wanna hear you say what you wrote, it would sound so sensitive and sweet. But that is not how you win championships. They get results because they demand them, take them without asking, and any chance they get they push the envelope. It will be a long time before they give lady luck the nod as why they won. You take her out of the equation and they would of had more championships already (rookie year LEADING points before race starts before 1st lap mark martin breaks steering and takes jimmie out a talladaga) So if anything she is just paying her dues back. SO yes they are struggling on pit road but they are not taking it lying down!!

sylvia richardson
07/20/2011 05:01 PM

who cares what the [48] does….. GO MARK

07/20/2011 07:25 PM

As long as we are speculating…how about they swap teams again, this time the 24 & 48 including crew chiefs. JG has 2 wins, JJ’s only win would not have been possible with Jr.‘s commitment to pushing JJ, even over the finish line. It is Chad’s idea to make tossed salad of the pit crew every week. Alan does not have the pit crew problems that the 88 & 48 are having.
After Chad has his weekly try outs to see who will be on his pit crew for the weekend, where do the other guys go…? The #88…?

Bill B
07/20/2011 08:52 PM

That wasn’t advice that was an observation (do you really think Chad or Jimmie read this and if they did why would they be taking advice from me).

Sounds like you are in love with Jimmies Johnson. I’d almost like to hear you getting all catty defending your man. I bet it would be a great Oprah moment.

All I was saying is you can’t always come out on the positive side of luck. Eventually it will bite you no matter how good you are or what you do. And I think it’s about time the odds even out. I didn’t say they should give up but I don’t feel like hearing them complain when things don’t go their way.

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