“I told him my job as the leader is to do everything I can to win that race.”
These are the words of Denny Hamlin, spoken just after his tussle with teammate Kyle Busch in the All-Star Race last month. Less than a week later, Hamlin reiterated that not only was he the leader of his No. 11 team, but that he also felt the necessity to step up and assume that role as the senior driver at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now in his fifth full Sprint Cup season, Hamlin seems to soak up the role, and certainly has matured from the days when he used to throw his crew under the bus on national television. It’s a great thing to utter those words the second he emerges from the car; but what’s even better is he’s also the same type of man inside it.
Fans have heard for years the dynamic of a race team explained to them. The driver essentially is the star quarterback, while the crew chief is the head coach and the pit crew is the offensive line. This analogy makes sense, since the team’s finish lies mostly on the decisions the driver makes on the track. The choices the crew chief makes in the pits, on the car, and at the shop also highly influence the performance of the race team as a whole, but he can’t drive the car or change tires, making him the “motivator” responsible for getting the best out of everyone once the green flag drops. Finally, the pit crew plays as one unit to preserve the racecar’s track position.
In football, the quarterback position is not taken lightly. Players that cannot handle the pressure of both being the center of every play and rallying their teammates rarely, if ever, have staying power in the NFL (see: JaMarcus Russell). However, the “drivers as quarterbacks” analogy may be seriously flawed in stock car racing.
NASCAR is unique among sports in that fans can hear almost all the talk between members of race teams during the race. With access to scanners and Sprint FanView at racetracks and programs like TrackPass Scanner on computers, as well as the mobile NASCAR option on Sprint phones, diehard race fans can tap into unfiltered insider communications. In doing so, the public gets the opportunity to hear what the public relations armada does not want the masses to hear: adversity.
If drivers are supposed to be the leaders of race teams, as Hamlin believes he is with the No. 11 FedEx crew, then their communications with the crew that supports them needs to change. At least once in almost every telecast, a transmission is aired of a driver going off on the pit crew or crew chief because of a bad stop or adjustment. Just last week, such audio could be heard on the No. 2 Miller Lite team channel, showing a dark side of one of this year’s title contenders. Driver Kurt Busch had to make a green-flag pit stop just after a restart, because the cap was left off the valve stem on one of his newly attached tires. This sent the 2004 champ on a tirade comparable of an actress walking into a green room, then laying into her manager for stocking Coke Classic instead of Diet Coke.
Of course, that’s only the latest such incident for Busch, who already has chided elder head wrench Steve Addington (in his first year as Busch’s crew chief) many times before. After Addington made the wrong strategy late in a race that cost Busch a win earlier in the season, he yelled at him as if the man was a misbehaving child. Busch also infamously batted around former crew chief Pat Tryson at Martinsville in late 2008, even catching heat from owner Roger Penske in the process. Struggling with the handling of his racecar, Busch repeatedly asked if he could park their laps down, wrecked Dodge for the day. And as much of a Penske and Miller Lite team advocate as Busch is in front of the cameras, his satisfied solidarity seems contrived. How can a driver supposedly so in love and in tune with crew chief Pat Tryson (as he said they were to the press after their win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 2009) have meltdowns with the same person, then eventually chase them to another team? How could Busch essentially refuse to be a fill-in driver for teammate Brad Keselowski in the Talladega Nationwide Series race, as Penske said he did back in April? Do these traits seem to be those of a leader?
To find another example of this inconsistency, look no further than Busch’s younger brother and Addington’s former driver, Kyle Busch. Kyle has never professed to being a leader, but as we discussed earlier, sitting in the driver’s seat makes one the de facto holder of that position. Busch won eight races with Addington in a breakout 2008, Busch’s first with the No. 18 team, and then won four more in 2009. But Busch failed miserably in the Chase in 2008 and missed the playoffs altogether last season, prompting Addington’s departure from the team’s pit box before the end of the year. Busch and Addington visited AMS victory lane in 2008, a year before Kurt and Tryson, and were riding a familiar emotional high while displaying the same emotional camaraderie with one another. But Busch’s constant temper tantrums in adverse situations, along with his insistence on running for the Nationwide Series championship in 2009 deteriorated the relationship between the two.
Let’s see how long Addington lasts with Kurt, while we count out the number of times Dave Rogers gets cussed out and bossed around by Kyle.
The Busch brothers are not alone in their pathetic attempts at leadership. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most notorious example of a radio basher, as he often mixes the diva qualities of Aretha Franklin and the foul mouth of Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family in his temper tantrums. Junior obviously has been struggling for most of the past six seasons and is frustrated, but his constant berating of former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and the already infamous episodes between himself and current wrench man Lance McGrew cross over the line of the criticism a leader – one who should be rallying his troops – should display. McGrew is one of the few crew chiefs who actually bite back at their driver, as he famously told Junior to stop complaining about the car’s handling at Bristol back in March, to get up on the wheel and be a better driver. Junior rallied back and finished seventh in that race. But how long can a driver grate on a crew chief and a team before both give up on him?
These are the most glaring examples of the leadership voids amongst Sprint Cup drivers. There are more. Tony Stewart got roasted by former crew chief Greg Zipadelli after throwing a temper tantrum at the Home Depot crew during Stewart’s last season in the No. 20 car. Kevin Harvick questioned his Nationwide Series crew’s abilities early this season after spending bundles of dough to train them last winter. Clint Bowyer often sounds scared and temperamental as he squeals about the deficiencies of his racecar to No. 33 crew chief Shane Wilson. And no matter the driver, it’s either the crew chief or the spotter who are almost always offering encouragement and motivation to all – often correcting the wheelman in the heat of the moment. Even four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson is often on the receiving end of wise words from the Superman of Crew Chiefs, Chad Knaus.
Maybe the dynamic has changed. Maybe drivers are simply expected to drive, while the crew chiefs and owners handle the motivation and leading of the race teams. Maybe the “drivers as quarterbacks” analogy is now anomalous. Well if that’s true, one needs to look no further than the example Hamlin sets as the leader of his race team, which, by the way, has won four of the last nine Cup races and moved from 19th to third in the points in that span. Maybe Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford are onto something….
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.