It was revealed late Monday that Drew Blickensderfer would be replaced as crew chief on the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Crown Royal Ford driven by Matt Kenseth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. After just one year and one race atop the war wagon of the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, Blickensderfer is being reassigned to a research and development role within the organization. Todd Parrott, two-time Daytona 500 winning crew chief and architect of Dale Jarrett’s 1999 Sprint Cup championship will assume the position of team leader after spending last year with Yates Racing off-shoot Hall of Fame Racing with Bobby Labonte and Erik Darnell.
The announcement comes following Kenseth’s eighth-place finish in the 500, just ahead of teammate Carl Edwards – and just one year after posting back to back wins at Daytona and the following week at California. The catalyst for the move could be the eighth-place finish itself, largely the result of the two late-race restart scrambles – much like with Dale Earnhardt Jr. – as Kenseth scurried from 25th to eighth in the green/white/checkered mulligans, driving a mid-pack car that was uncooperative and unresponsive most of the event.
While the move was abrupt, it was not exactly shocking. After posting a pair of wins in their first outings together in 2009, the No. 17 team struggled the rest of the season, and missed the Chase for the first time since its inception. Kenseth was not short of criticism of his team as tensions mounted as the season drug on. Following a disappointing 12th-place finish last fall in Atlanta, Kenseth remarked, “Take out the first two weeks, and it’s probably the worst we’ve run since 2001. It’s starting to get on my nerves.”
With his team still on the cusp of qualifying for the Chase, he was reflective, if brutally honest. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good run at Richmond and make it in. If we do, that’s great. If we don’t run better than we’ve run here lately, we probably don’t deserve to get in.”
He didn’t – and they didn’t. The No. 17 team missed becoming the only other team/driver besides Jimmie Johnson to qualify for the Chase each year since 2004. That coupled with the departure of iconic sponsor DeWalt that had been with the team since their inception in 2000, the need for a change in leadership apparently came to a head following the biggest race of the season.
Blickensderfer, who just a few years ago was serving as Mark Martin’s rear tire changer on the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford, was elevated to crew chief for 2006 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year Danny O’Quinn, and later for other Roush drivers serving Nationwide duty. With the departure of Robbie Reiser and interim crew chief Chip Bolin, it would be Blickensderfer’s turn come 2009, and things looked to get off to a great start winning the first two events of the season.
As 2009 wore on, the performance of the No. 17 had plateaued into what was typically a 10th-15th-place machine. The team would often struggle with figuring out the right feel for the car on race weekend, and then again on Sunday making changes to get to the front.
To be fair however, the entire Roush Fenway organization was a non sequitur for 2009, with Jamie McMurray’s win at Talladega in the fall as the only other win among their five-car armada. Kenseth would eventually finish the season in 14th, while teammates Greg Biffle and Edwards came home seventh and 11th respectively. Teammates McMurray and David Ragan were further down the stat sheet in 22nd and 27th place. Under the traditional points system, Kenseth would have finished just nine points behind Edwards in 12th.
Nothing Earth-shattering mind you, but not exactly damning and incriminating either, if you take a look at the collective results of Roush Fenway as a whole.
In new crew chief Todd Parrott, there is a mercurial personality that has come and gone at various points during the last several years. He has a habit of making improvements seemingly overnight with any team that he aligns himself with, having been a part of 29 Cup Series victories during his career, placing him third among active crew chiefs. With much of his time spent during the mid-1990s through mid-2000s battling Roush Racing for top honors in the Ford camp with Robert Yates Racing, Parrott now joins the organization that welcomed his father Buddy and younger brother Brad.
An emotional leader who is given to bouts of expression that would challenge even McMurray at Daytona, Parrott is the type of crew chief who is cut more from the same cloth as Robbie Reiser – the only crew chief Matt Kenseth really ever had through 2007 – than Drew Blickensderfer. One memory that sticks out in my head is while crew chief of Jarrett’s No. 88 Ford, the car was a bit of a handful one day at Talladega. As ESPN showed their chief mechanic examining the Ford Quality Care Taurus, their audio feed kicked in at the same time he boldly declared, “Let’s put a part of 20-bleed shocks on the front of this mother*****.”
Kyle Petty, eat your heart out.
It is that sort of passion and emotion – one that was displayed and so acutely by McMurray in victory lane following his win Sunday – that can inspire and rally a team that has struggled to find its way the last couple of seasons, going winless in 2008, and nearing a year since their last victory at Fontana in 2009. Blickensderfer may ultimately end up being more successful in the R&D capacity he has been moved to. It is a move not unlike that of Ben Leslie, who after nearly winning a Cup championship with Martin in 2002 was swapped with Wood Brothers crew chief Pat Tryson late in 2003. The following year, Leslie would eventually wind up working as Field Director for Ford Racing. He wound up returning to Roush this season as crew chief for Nationwide Series ROTY candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
That is to say, Blickensderfer clearly has the capability to be a crew chief at this level; it just might do him some good to take a step or two back, before returning to the fold too soon.
So what does this all mean for Kenseth? Hopefully a return to relevance – if not prominence – in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His last banner season was 2006, where he narrowly finished second to Johnson by 56 points (all but four points under the traditional system), and scored four wins. There has been success since then, but along the way much frustration and disappointment for one of the cornerstones of Ford’s flagship racing organization.
It’s kind of hard to call a Daytona 500 victory and a follow up 500-mile win at Auto Club Speedway a disappointment, particularly when you contributed 2/3 of the wins for Ford Motor Company the entire year – the other being a plate race win by then teammate McMurray in the now defunct No. 26 car. The fact that he was able to do what Biffle, Ragan and Edwards combined weren’t able to do speaks volumes of the struggles endured by the Roush Fenway bunch – as well as the ability of Drew Blickensderfer to bring a competitive car to the track.
However, in an era where what have you done for me lately?, is as resounding as, “Gentlemen start your engines”, changes will come swiftly and suddenly, as teams scrape and scramble for whatever competitive advantage they can get. You are only as good as your last race in the Sprint Cup Series, and sometimes an eighth-place finish just isn’t going to get it done.