Mike Bugarewicz’s career as a crew chief in NASCAR’s premier division was one that got off to a distinctive start.
The longtime engineer was named three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart’s crew chief for his final full-time season heading into 2016. However, after Stewart was injured over the off-season in an off-road vehicle accident, sustaining an L1 vertebra burst fracture, Bugarewicz patiently awaited his car owner and driver’s arrival. In the interim, he worked with rookie Ty Dillon and veteran Brian Vickers, who returned to a racecar after sitting out over a year due to recurring blood clots.
Within the No. 14 team’s garage stall at Pocono Raceway in August, Stewart and Bugarewicz joked around, showcasing Stewart’s old form. Locked into the Chase with a triumph at Sonoma, the team was at ease for the rest of the regular season. We spoke with Bugarewicz, who describes what it’s like to work with Stewart, the challenge he’s faced this year, what to expect from him in the future and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: How much of a challenge was it to work with multiple drivers at the beginning of the year?
Mike Bugarewicz: It definitely has its challenges, especially being a first-time crew chief. You have your hands full with everything, trying to get your feet wet. On top of it, you have to deal with different drivers every week. It’s definitely a challenge. Not everybody likes the same feel, the same things. In a short period of time, you’re trying to figure out what they like and then before you know it, you have somebody else in the car, trying to figure out what they like. It repeats all over again. Then, a quarter of the way into the season, your primary driver shows up and you feel like you’re back at square one. There were definitely some challenges with that.
Wolkin: What did it mean for you to be named as Tony’s crew chief in his final season?
Bugarewicz: I’m really appreciative of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing for giving me this opportunity. I’ve been waiting a really long time to have this. On top of it, to be here with Tony Stewart, a three-time champion, it’s a great honor, especially in his final season. Outside of that, it’s great. We’re just working to get him the final season he deserves. He’s been a great part of the sport, so we’re trying to get him out by going out on top.
Wolkin: What were your expectations entering this season after Tony struggled last year?
Bugarewicz: Definitely to win a race, make the Chase and be very competitive in the Chase. I think we’re going to race for a championship, and we have some work to do if we’re going to be one of the final four contenders. But each week, we’re showing more and more promise, and we’re running with the guys we’re going to race with in the Chase. That’s what’s important.
Wolkin: What’s it been like to work with Tony?
Bugarewicz: At the beginning, we were trying to figure each other out when he first got back in the car. Every week, he gets better and better. There are things he says and does, and with his tone, I can tell more easily how much I need to change or what I need to change. That’s progression. If we continue to qualify better and race better, we’ll get better faster.
Wolkin: What have you struggled with in your first year as a crew chief besides working with multiple drivers?
Bugarewicz: I think the biggest challenge for me is I’m an engineer by trade, and I haven’t had to manage people before. Managing people is a new step for me. It’s something difficult to do. People always say managing people is always one of the hardest jobs you can do, and it is. On top of the managerial stuff and technical side, you’re trying to please a lot of people at the same time and it’s almost near impossible.
Wolkin: What does the team need to improve on to be a title contender?
Bugarewicz: I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing. As long as we keep progressing in the right direction, doing what we need to do, finishing races, running on the lead lap and racing against cars in the Chase, we’re going to be fine.
Wolkin: How closely do you work with the other Stewart-Haas teams?
Bugarewicz: We all work together very close. The four crew chiefs have a really good relationship with one another. We talk all the time. It’s not to say that we all run the exact same stuff, but we’re in close communications with one another to help each other all the time. We have a great relationship. We work together – I would argue – the best out of any company in the garage.
Wolkin: Rodney Childers was out at Pocono due to being suspended for violating the lug nut rule. What are your thoughts on the rule?
Bugarewicz: I’m in favor of the safety aspect of it. There are supposed to be five lug nuts on the cars at all times. That’s why we have five studs. That’s why they’re there in the first place. From the safety aspect, that’s obviously the right thing to do. The part that’s difficult as a crew chief is you aren’t the one putting the lug nuts on the car.
You can’t make that call until the car is already leaving. It kind of puts you in a bad spot because you get the fine and you get suspended when it was out of your control. In that sense, it’s a little bit bias and unfair to the crew chief. I understand why NASCAR does it, too. They’re trying to make sure these things don’t go doing what we’ve been doing with four lug nuts, three lug nuts and all of that stuff. The way you can hit a team the hardest is removing key people. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Wolkin: So why not suspend the crew member that did it, rather than the crew chief?
Bugarewicz: Well, I think all of us crew chiefs will argue that as a point. But NASCAR is smart enough to know we have enough depth in the company that it’s a lot easier to find a replacement tire changer for a weekend than it is to find a replacement crew chief for a weekend, especially when so much of that comes down to chemistry between a driver and team.
Wolkin: You’re going to be at Homestead in a few months. How emotional do you think it’s going to be for you while working with Tony for his last race?
Bugarewicz: I think that last race is going to be really hard on every single person in the company – myself, Tony and everybody who has worked with Tony. He’s not done racing, but he’s going to be done racing at this level. We’re still going to see him a lot. He’s still our owner. It’s not like he’s disappearing off the face of the Earth or anything. To not see him out on the racetrack after 18 years is going to be certainly different.
Wolkin: How much time do you spend with him outside of the track?
Bugarewicz: Right now, he’s been pretty tied up with some projects he’s had going on with his house. He’s had some other projects with the All Star Circuit of Champions. He’s been pretty busy and pretty tied up, but we talk a lot. We communicate over-the-phone. We mostly see each other at the racetrack. Hopefully, as we get closer to the Chase, we can spend a bit more time together in person.
Wolkin: Will you be back with Clint next year?
Bugarewicz: I’ll be coming back with Clint next year. The team will be the same for next year. It’ll be the same group with a different driver. We’re going to try to work forward.
Wolkin: Have you begun to speak to Clint at all about next year?
Bugarewicz: Actually, Clint and I have been talking a lot. We didn’t start out the season talking because he was getting his feet wet, trying to learn about his deal and the same on my side. I think it was around Pocono in June when we started to communicate more. We just started to touch base, trying to get a feel of what each other’s doing each week. At this point, it’s a pretty good relationship.
Wolkin: How do you feel like he’s going to do in the car compared to Tony?
Bugarewicz: I think he’ll do a good job. Nobody knows what the future holds here. I know he’s hungry and wants to win a championship. That’s what you ask for in a driver – a guy who has the desire. We all know he’s won races before. In my opinion, he’s won races in stuff that probably isn’t good as we have. I’m excited to have him on board and I think it’ll be successful.
Wolkin: The team is adding an XFINITY Series program next year. How can that help the Cup Series deal?
Bugarewicz: The biggest thing with the XFINITY Series is back in the day when the cars were a little similar, you could learn some stuff set-up wise to help each other. Well, that’s pretty much gone and non-existent at this point. Drivers sometimes say they can learn the nuances in the track and the tire itself if we’re running the same tire.
But it’s limited what they gain from doing that. I’d say the big thing for us as a company is building up youth and building up experience in different positions. When the Cup side needs a tire guy or an engineer or a new crew chief to move up, you’ve had someone who’s been working on it at a different level, which can make their transition easier. For me, I just took a jump from engineer to crew chief, never being a crew chief before, and I’m at the premier level with a premier driver. I’m not going to say it’s easy. It’s definitely a hard transition, where I think a lot of the teams like Gibbs bring their guys up through lower series. The shock is probably a little less intense for them.
Wolkin: Being an engineer for so long, did you ever see yourself becoming a Cup crew chief?
Bugarewicz: It was definitely a goal of mine early on when I started working in the sport. I’ve always wanted the opportunity, and I’ve been waiting a long time for it. I guess I can say I did because I was going to keep working at it until I got the opportunity.
Wolkin: Michigan is going to have the lower downforce package once again. What are your thoughts on the current package compared to that one?
Bugarewicz: At the beginning of the year, we felt like the rules package change NASCAR made with the low-downforce was a good thing. We’ve had some really great racing this year. They took that additional step and tried to take away some side force, too. It just doesn’t have the same impact that the first step had. As competitors, we’ll race anything they’ll bring to the table and try to win a race. I feel like we need to try to go to a different avenue and start exploring some different options. What they are right now, I couldn’t say, but I don’t think we’ve made the gain like we did with the first change.
Wolkin: What do you want to see in the rules package for next year?
Bugarewicz: In some senses – at least in my personal opinion only – I almost rather hang around where we’re at here. I would love to see if NASCAR would entertain giving some horsepower back – maybe not all of it, but at least some of it back. We need to let Goodyear work on the tire a little bit more. We’ve been changing packages so much, and it changes the loading of the tire and how we abuse the tire. Goodyear hasn’t really had a chance to catch up each week.
I think if we gave them some time on the same package – going back to tracks a few times – we could gain a little stability that way to where we’re racing better. Potentially, we could have a tire where you’d have fall-off, but the guys who take care of their stuff might be better at the end. The guys who go hard at the beginning will be good at the start. I think that would be the best bet.