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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: How Important is the Crew Chief? With Matt Kenseth, Not Very

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 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 paperclip. This makes him the second highest of Roush Fenway drivers, with Greg Biffle consistently top tenning his way to second in points. Once again 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 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 10 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.

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 fives and five top 10s. Kenseth finished the season with nine top fives 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 10.

With Robbie Reiser, Kenseth averaged almost 10 top fives and 17.5 top 10s a season. In 2008 with Chip Bolin he scored nine top fives and 20 top 10s, and in 2009 with Drew Blickensderfer he scored seven top fives 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 Kenseth, with three top fives 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 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.
  • 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.
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