Wally Brown steps up for Joe Gibbs Racing with Jason Ratcliff on suspension
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Wally Brown is headed back to his day job.
On Monday morning, Matt Kenseth’s interim crew chief at Darlington Raceway will return to his regular duties at Joe Gibbs Racing, which include managing the shop floor and ensuring the cars are loaded up to go the track that weekend. But his one-week stint atop the pit box produced a memorable result, one that ended with him and the No. 20 team celebrating Saturday night in Victory Lane.
A former crew chief for Carl Edwards, Brown was chosen by JGR to fill the role usually occupied by Jason Ratcliff, who was back in North Carolina serving a one-week suspension mandated by NASCAR for a rules violation. Brown wasn’t the only substitute working the Bojangles’ Southern 500 -- Kevin Buskirk and Steve Reis managed the Penske Racing teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, respectively -- but none enjoyed a better outcome.
“Overall, the weekend went pretty good,” Brown said. “Just due to the preparation of the (No.) 20 guys, Jason Ratcliff, they put a lot of effort, several test plans. We had our plan all weekend. It actually went pretty smooth. Once the race started, I noticed we were able to hang in there for a while. I knew at that point we'd be OK. If we just kept up with the track position, we would have a good night.”
It was, with Kenseth seizing the lead late and winning a race in which his teammate Kyle Busch led 265 laps. Busch cut down a tire late and faded to sixth, but despite his own disappointment No. 18 crew chief Dave Rogers was pleased to see the race victory stay in the family.
“Thankfully, the trophy is going back to Joe Gibbs Racing,” he said. “There are over 400 people back there that are working really hard to build us fast race cars. I know they’re all upset that we dominated all day and didn’t get the win, but I know they’re all happy, too, because Matt brought the trophy home. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re looking to do. We’re looking to dominate every race as a company. We did that tonight.”
No question that happened, with Kenseth and teammate Denny Hamlin -- in his first full race back after missing most of five events with a fractured vertebra, no less -- sweeping the top two spots, and Busch dominating the race until the final stages. In the middle of it all was the low-key and unassuming Brown, who before Saturday had called 39 events at NASCAR’s highest level, including a full season with Edwards at Roush Fenway in 2006.
But he had never won a race -- until now. “We got a bunch of changes here,” Brown radioed to Kenseth when his driver reported being “sideways” late in the race. The adjustments paid off, with Kenseth moving up to second and leading the final 13 laps of the event. Brown credited Ratcliff, who was in touch with the team even though he was serving a suspension for a connecting rod in Kenseth’s winning Kansas engine that was found to be too light in post-race inspection. The suspension was originally six races, but cut to one on appeal.
“Jason was pivotal to this win,” Brown said. “We were in constant communication at all times. This win is because of him and his guys, how prepared they are. It's amazing.”
Brown, though, was the one on the hot seat Saturday night. It helped that he and his driver had known one another since their days together at Roush, for which Kenseth had spent his entire career before moving to Gibbs this season. “I think a lot of it was, I’ve known Matt since like 2003,” Brown said. “So if everything went bad and he started yelling at me, he knew I wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t bother me.”
It never came to that, though the other substitute crew chiefs working Saturday night had their hands full. Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon, regular signal-callers for Keselowski and Logano, respectively, sat out the first of a three-week suspension that also includes the upcoming events at Charlotte. Reis and Logano lost a lap early because the No. 22 car was too loose, and finished 22nd. Keselowski and Buskirk lost a lap early because of a vibration. The reigning Sprint Cup champ was later involved in a crash, and wound up 32nd.
Wolfe and Gordon, as well as the car chiefs and engineers on the respective Penske teams, are suspended because of rear-end housings on both cars that were confiscated by NASCAR before the event at Texas. Those suspensions were originally slated to be six weeks as well, but were cut to two points events, plus the Sprint All-Star Race, on appeal.
Wolfe and Gordon will return for the June 2 event at Dover. Ratcliff, though, will be back next week, ending Brown’s successful one-race return to the pit box. No surprise that the victory came at Darlington, a place that showed off the depth of a Gibbs organization that swept the top three spots in Friday night’s Nationwide Series event before winning again the next day.
“We've just got a great team,” said JGR President J.D. Gibbs. “So from top to bottom, drivers, crew chiefs, guys that travel, guys back at the shop, I think that really pays off on the weekend. It pays off in Nationwide. That's kind of our training ground for our guys to move up to Cup. Then it pays off in Cup. We have guys that work hard, long hours. They enjoy it. They enjoy winning races, too.”
Brown, meanwhile, is headed back to his regular job at the Gibbs shop.
“This was a one-race deal,” he said, “just to help out.”
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