“Pat, buddy, where have you been all my life?!”
No, that wasn’t Kurt Busch speaking to new crew chief Pat Tryson following their Sunday victory at Pocono… although it easily could have been. Instead, it was Busch’s former Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin, words spoken following Martin and Tryson’s first race together at Phoenix in 2003. The joy expressed from that fateful day proved a telling insight into what would be a successful future between the two men… a future that Tryson appears ready to relive through the potential of a younger, rising talent.
A crew chief for several years on the Nextel Cup circuit, it was with Roush Racing where Tryson experienced the most success. Martin was in the midst of a tailspin that season, and Tryson was brought in from the Wood Brothers to help right the ship. As the year progressed, he proved instrumental in molding the No. 6 car back to a top-10 contender after it struggled as a 20-something effort in the earlier portion of that season.
Fast forward to the following year. During the summer of 2004, Martin was out of Chase contention in the inaugural season for the 10-race playoff format, and clearly despondent. A rash of engine and transmission failures had him facing the prospect of missing the inaugural championship run, potentially losing sponsor Pfizer-Viagra in the process. It was a difficult time, one that led him to begin questioning his abilities as both a driver and his future in the sport.
Not to fear. During their late summer run of success, Tryson fielded cars that finished in the top five five times in seven races. During the final race before the Chase at Richmond, Martin was involved in a tangle midway through the event that damaged the nose of the car. Tryson kept both driver and crew focused, oversaw repairs, and directed them to a fifth-place finish, making them eligible for that year’s battle for the championship. Together, the duo entered the final race at Homestead with a shot at the title, a prospect that many would have dismissed as delusional just a few months earlier.
The next year, Tryson guided the No. 6 car safely into the Chase, with no theater or last-second heroics needed. Once there, the team turned up the wick, scoring six top-five finishes and a win at Kansas to place Mark fourth in the overall standings two years in a row. Had the team not been involved in the Big One at Talladega, we would be referring to him as 2005 Nextel Cup champion crew chief Pat Tryson.
Helping to coax Martin and the majority of the No. 6 team to return for one more year, the two paired together to make the Chase yet again in 2006. Tryson, along with Chad Knaus and Robbie Reiser, became one of only three crew chiefs to make the Chase in all three seasons since its inception.
No question, the man has proved his worth as a head wrench. Now, Tryson looks to extend his resume again in 2007, aiming at a fourth straight visit to the playoffs with Busch and the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge.
The surprising opportunity has been a breath of fresh air from what was a very difficult season for the former Ford loyalist. Beginning the year with Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team, replacing the departed Doug Richert, Tryson was unceremoniously dismissed from Roush Racing in mid-May when he voiced his displeasure over falling severely behind in Car of Tomorrow development – through the absence of any meaningful testing.
Behind the scenes, Roush also complained Tryson wasn’t heavy-handed enough with the pit crew and other members of the team. The crew chief didn’t take such comments lightly, and was quite candid following his dismissal; he claimed he really wanted to leave at the end of 2006 when Martin left Roush, but he had grown close with the Biff and enjoyed working with him tremendously. Even by Biffle’s account, the team was on the brink of turning things around; but at the time, Roush felt otherwise, and that’s really the only opinion that mattered.
In a strange twist of irony, Roush’s No. 16 will most likely miss the Chase for the second straight year, even with the changes made since Tryson’s departure. Currently sitting 15th in points, they are tied with, of all people, former Tryson partner and Roush stalwart Martin, who has missed five races in his limited schedule with Ginn/DEI, yet has accumulated just as many points as Biffle. No question, the way in which the team has performed since things got all shaken up has done nothing but proven that Tryson wasn’t the only problem within that team.
But still, that didn’t change the fact Tryson was released; left searching for a job, the talented crew chief didn’t stay out of work long. At the beginning of summer, he came on board as the third crew chief for Busch this season. Roy McCauley had started the year with the team, but took a leave of absence in early April to care for his cancer-stricken wife, creating a void Penske needed to fill. His replacement, team engineer Troy Raker, succeeded early; after just two races, he scored consecutive top fives with Busch behind the wheel. But a series of mediocre runs and incidents, including the notorious Dover pit road debacle with Tony Stewart, it became clear further change was needed in order to turn the program around.
So, Tryson was brought on board at Penske Racing South following the June race at Michigan, and the impact was immediate. When the new crew chief came on board, Busch had an average finish of 19.3, was 16th in points, and had mustered only three top 10s. Six weeks later, Busch has an average finish of 10.7, he’s moved to 12th in points, and he scored an embarrassingly dominant victory Sunday, leading 175 of 200 laps at Pocono to set a new track record at the facility.
Tryson’s success with his new team isn’t that surprising when you analyze it. There are a lot of similarities between Martin and Busch, and it goes well beyond either of them not tanning very well. Both drivers spend a lot of time against the firewall, as evidenced during a test session when the two were teammates at Roush Racing. Telemetry from the No. 6 and No. 97 cars showed that both spent the most time at WOT (wide-open throttle) among the five-car team. The two also previously worked with Jimmy Fennig, the crew chief both had their most successful years with: Martin’s seven-win performance in 1998, and Busch’s first Nextel Cup championship trophy in 2004. Kurt has said he likes a crew chief to be up on new technology and trends, yet still have the same old-school sensibilities that took them to the top in the first place. Tryson, like Fennig, has both.
As team leader for Penske South’s flagship effort, Tryson was not just hired to help pick up the performance of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, but act as a mentor, keeping its pilot out of self-destruct mode. Busch is a supremely talented driver; however, anyone who has ever heard one of his outbursts over the team’s scanner (or stood on pit road at Dover) is well aware of his temper, and knows that his extensive vocabulary includes a plethora of salty language. But with this new combination, Busch has a crew chief where he’ll think before he speaks; no shrinking violet himself, Tryson played college football as a linebacker, and that’s not the type of person you want to make mad. On more than one occasion, Tryson’s clambered down from the war wagon when the going gets tough, making his opinion known in no uncertain terms to both competitors and officials alike.
A crew chief has to wear many hats, and Pat has worn them all. From mechanic to therapist, proud papa to cheerleader, Tryson has shown the ability throughout his career to maintain a driver’s confidence, as well as bring him in off the ledge when things look bleak. With Tryson both atop the pit box and in his ear, Kurt has ceased a Busch Brother trait: overdriving the car out of frustration and running into things with it. Tryson is also fiercely loyal to his drivers and crew members, shouldering the blame when things go wrong that are not of his doing. It’s a critical function for him to perform, with the scrutiny surrounding the elder Busch more intense than any average driver who might screw up.
But Tryson has also been a steadying influence on his driver, in addition to being a motivator for the team. It’s a positive work in progress; as the two continue to work together and build chemistry (and new racecars), they’re only going to get stronger. Sunday’s car was the first example of what Tryson can produce at Penske, his first opportunity to influence from start to finish both the construction of a car and the aerodynamic configuration of the body, The final product was nothing less than a work of art, giving Busch the tools he needed to break his 51-race winless streak with ease.
Looking ahead, Busch has won at four of the next five tracks on the schedule, including a career-high five wins at Bristol. He also has wins at the 2-mile sister tracks of Michigan and California. Considering Penske’s enviable reputation for making big-time horsepower numbers from their bulletproof R5-P7 Dodge engines, that could spell big trouble for the guys on the cusp of making the Chase.
Should Tryson and Busch continue on the path that they’re traveling, Tryson’s past Chase performances coupled with Kurt’s 2004 championship run could combine to make the only Mopar in the Chase as of now a sleeper pick to win it all in 2007.
Based on past history, I wouldn’t bet against it.
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