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Part I Of Our NASCAR Season Preview: Head Wrench Musical Chairs… And Miracles

Slowly over a pristine beach, the sun rises and for 43 NASCAR lucky drivers at Daytona, a new opportunity dawns to add to the glorious history of the Great American Race. After a three-month hiatus, the Sprint Cup Series returns with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 to begin its new season by offering up the sport’s top-level prize… at 200 mile-an-hour speeds, of course.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the start of a journey that takes us to Phoenix, New Hampshire and nearly two dozen American locales in between. As the 36-race season begins, along with its two exhibition shows the Frontstretch will be there, stride for stride covering these drivers and their stories every step of the way. But as we awake from our winter hibernation, so will many of you, preoccupied with life elsewhere during a season where football, Christmas, and anything but cars in circles takes center stage. So let us get you revved up once again, your heart pumping and your brain thinking through the trials and tribulations of the NASCAR season to come. Welcome to Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season but reintroducing the return of all your favorite columnists, returning to the weekly coverage they all love.

Today’s Season Preview Topic: This NASCAR offseason brought us a carousel of crew chief changes, to the point many of the top teams in the sport will start 2012 with a different driver/head wrench combination. Which of the new pairings do you think will be the most effective, and why? And which hiring was the biggest mistake?

Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb in happier times, before their driver/crew chief relationship was permanently severed last November.

Tom Bowles, Frontstretch.com Editor-In-Chief: There’s no question Darian Grubb enters this season with a chip on his shoulder. Wouldn’t you? After all, he led Stewart-Haas Racing to five wins in the ten Chase races only to be dumped as soon as the trophy landed safely in Tony Stewart’s hands. Poor Darian was getting cheated on at 2 in the morning, the day after Homestead as his former driver was texting future crew chief Steve Addington while toasting to the title. Talk about leaving a job with emotional baggage…

So yes, Grubb wants redemption and there’s no doubt he’ll rise to glory once again. It’s just new “flame” Denny Hamlin smacks of “rebound” more than “resurgence” as Joe Gibbs Racing enters 2012 filled with question marks. Hamlin, on just his second crew chief since 2005 needs to be more commanding and detail-oriented with feedback. Also a driver with rollercoaster confidence, he seems more suited for a “crack the whip” type of personality atop of the pit box, ala Greg Zipadelli in order to take the next step. Unfortunately, he won’t get that with the MENSA-minded but soft-spoken engineer in Grubb, capable of making the right adjustments but only when he knows what to fix. Plus, with all three of the JGR Toyotas behind the curve to end 2011 Grubb’s new setup knowledge will be counted on across the board. That spreads him thin beyond the No. 11, with an organization whose loss of Zipadelli hurts them dramatically. Bottom line? Grubb might find he was better off biding time at Hendrick, then becoming crew chief for Danica or someone else in 2013.

So who’s the best new connection? Not a big fan of many of them; lots of people, in my opinion made bad choices. However, if I have to pick I’ll go with Harvick-Shane Wilson. Wilson got the best of Clint Bowyer, when both were focused at the No. 33 in 2010 while Harvick personally asked Richard Childress for the best of the best. Expectations are high, but Wilson has been there with Harvick before (in Nationwide) and helped contribute to the driver’s record-setting, nine-win season in that division in 2006. My money’s on Happy smiling early and often before this pairing truly gets tested in the Chase.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: OK, we have 11 crew chiefs in new places for this year. Likely, the biggest mistake was Childress not giving Luke Lambert the chance to have a full season with Jeff Burton. As you may remember, Burton struggled for most of 2011 before a crew chief change put the first-timer Lambert at the helm. Over the final few weeks of the season, Burton finally seemed to come out of his year-long slump and actually led some races. The team ended the year with four top-10 finishes in the last five events (the fifth was a 27th at Texas that occurred only because Burton ran out of fuel with five laps to go while leading). Blickensderfer’s OK, but that pairing deserved another chance.

Among the new combinations, I’m betting Stewart-Addington is going to be the most effective. Stewart’s coming off the title and Addington is now paired with a slightly less psycho driver in his ear. He can relax a little bit and count the wins coming his way – not the insults.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer & Cup Postrace Analyst: I’m still trying to get my mind around how a crew chief leads his driver to a Cup title (not to mention five wins in the last ten races of the season) and still gets canned at the end of the year. With all due apologies to Steve Addington, I think Tony Stewart is going to seriously regret letting Darian Grubb go. Conversely, in my mind Denny Hamlin is the big winner with Grubb now calling the shots for the No. 11 team. That having been said, it’s stable driver/crew chief combinations like Johnson and Knaus or Edwards and Osborne I expect to enjoy the most success, at least early in the season.

A.J. Allmendinger’s got a new lease on life with a new ride at Penske Racing and a crew chief in Todd Gordon (not pictured) expected to turn heads.

Amy Henderson, Co-Managing Editor: I’m really excited to see what develops at Penske Racing this year. While it’s been said that A.J. Allmendinger and crew chief Todd Gordon could surprise some people, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention when this combination breaks into Victory Lane. Gordon is a veteran Nationwide Series crew chief and Allmendinger has shown that he can have great finishes in lesser equipment. Also, the new blood should encourage more teamwork between the Nos. 2 and 22, something that Brad Keselowski has said is needed, a natural connection which should produce some serious results.

Ironically, the biggest mistake may have been a non-move. After a lackluster year for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus in which the old magic just wasn’t there – Knaus’ once race-winning calls turned sour – it was rumored that Knaus would be promoted to Competition Director at Hendrick Motorsports while being replaced on the pit box by Darian Grubb. Face it: like the Chase or hate it, making the right calls in the final ten races are what counts when it comes to title runs. Last season, it was Grubb, not Knaus who made them, while Johnson’s frustration was nearly palpable during a large number of events. Johnson and Grubb have won on their own together (see: 2006 Daytona 500) and if Knaus is the genius that many say he is, the move could have elevated not only Johnson’s No. 48 but every team in the Hendrick Motorsports stable.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Co-Managing Editor: At this point, I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of the crew chief changes the offseason brought; when have we seen a _mechanic_ “Silly Season” like this one? But perhaps the move that puzzles me the most is the split between Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb. Sure, early in the season, the pairing didn’t look like they’d make the Chase, much less win five of ten races en route to the championship, but what I didn’t understand was why Stewart didn’t ask Grubb to stay after their outstanding Chase performance. On the flip side, I’m sure Denny Hamlin is happy to add a championship crew chief to his team after a lackluster season with Mike Ford atop the pit box. There’s no reason to believe the duo won’t visit Victory Lane more than once and they’ll likely mount a strong run at the championship assuming their equipment can hold up.

With that being said, the pairing of Steve Addington with Stewart can be either a huge mistake or a huge blessing. After all, Addington found success with Kyle Busch before moving on as head wrench for older brother Kurt, where he struggled with adjustability en route to two so-so seasons. However, those struggles while atop the No. 22 pit box could have easily been a conflict of personalities, a difficulty working with a driver who explodes when his car isn’t handling right rather than calmly discussing exactly what the problem is so they can come to a solution.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer & Short Track Analyst: This is a tough call but I’m going with Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb. Mike Ford is a good crew chief but he tended to be overly conservative. Grubb has proven to be a risk taker and that style will pay off for Hamlin. While it always takes a little time for a new pairing to gel, when the Chase arrives this pairing could very well be the duo to beat. Meanwhile, Chris Heroy moving onto the box for Juan Pablo Montoya is probably going to be a move that will be regretted. Montoya is a very demanding driver who has little tolerance for indecision. That means Heroy, a former Hendrick engineer turned first-time head wrench is going to have no time to learn the craft before his feet are held to the fire.

S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: First, there’s the no-brainer: Darian Grubb left the championship No. 14 SHR team before Smoke finished burning down his Victory Lap at Homestead. Denny Hamlin undoubtedly stands to gain much with Grubb’s proven track record. Anybody who can stand up to Tony Stewart and bring home the gold can surely help an almost exciting No. 11 get closer to the Cup in 2012.

But, don’t downplay Jason Ratcliff — recently of the No. 18 Nationwide JGR car. Passion and precision was never lacking on that team, just a level-headed driver. Joey Logano’s struggling career stands to gain more than a little with a new crew chief at the helm, finally leaving the shadow of Tony Stewart behind.

Who messed up? Well, while Drew Blickensderfer has the pedigree, lingering doubts remain from his stint heading the No. 6 Roush team. Call me less than excited for Jeff Burton’s 2012 season.

Tony Lumbis, Business Reporter & Marketing Manager: The Hamlin/Grubb combination will just beat out the Stewart/Addington duo. There is no question that Denny Hamlin has the talent to win a championship; the biggest unknown has been his state of mind. A new voice in his ear, one that led Jimmie Johnson to a Daytona 500 victory and Tony Stewart to his third title may be just what Denny needs to enter a better mindset in 2012.

On the other hand, pairing moderately successful Drew Blickensderfer with veteran Jeff Burton after the 2011 season certainly turned some heads. It’s not that I think this decision will result in a disaster, but I think an average 2012 season will leave many to wonder what might have been had Luke Lambert, who was hitting his stride with the No. 31 team late last year, been left atop the Caterpillar pit box.

John Potts, Senior Writer & Historical Columnist: With almost a dozen crew chief changes, it’s hard to figure which is going to be the most effective. As always, the chemistry will play a big part, and who knows how that’s going to work out. I’m looking for Smoke and Addington to be effective, while I also see turning Grubb loose as the biggest mistake. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll ever know the whole story there.

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