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Crew chief an important cog in driver's machine

July 24, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com



Crew chief an important cog in driver's machine
Race strategy, calls he makes can be the difference between victory and defeat

A good crew chief does more than call the shots from atop the pit box. At times, he has to be a manager, a counselor, a cheerleader, a gambler and a strategist. Like the car, the driver and the crew, the crew chief plays an integral role in a sport where the fine line between winning and losing can be measured in the blink of an eye.

Contrary to popular opinion, the fastest car doesn't always win. Some races are won or lost on fuel strategy, track position and on pit road.

"It's definitely important to have some experience, but sometimes experience is overrated."

--KENNY FRANCIS

Take the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire, for example. Other drivers might have dominated that race, but Kasey Kahne won in part because crew chief Kenny Francis made the perfect call at the right time, opting to put two tires on the No. 5 Chevrolet. It was a move which gave Kahne track position and clean air once he got out front.

On the other hand, the slightest miscommunication -- like what happened between Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb on the same stop -- can be costly. The crew of the No. 11 Toyota put on four tires when Kahne and the others took two. Despite Hamlin's charge back through the field, he ran out of time before he could catch the leader.

"Nothing is a given," Hamlin said. "Even though it was pretty obvious we had a win in the bag if we took two tires, you never know what could have happened."

In this instance, Francis made the game-changing call. But Francis admits every decision he makes, whether it's playing the percentages or going against convention, is completely dependent on factors which he cannot control.

Some of it depends on the competition and some of it is pure luck, because no one knows for sure how future events will play out. Had a late caution come out, Hamlin would have had fresher tires on a restart. But the race stayed green to the end, allowing Kahne to hang on.

Francis said every call a crew chief makes comes down to an educated guess, based on previous experience and the current situation.

"You never know, because it depends on what everyone else does," Francis said. "It's kind of a gamble either way. So if everyone had taken four [tires] and we were the only ones that took two, we would have been in big trouble. But typically, the first six or eight cars do the same thing, and everybody's in the same boat, and it's kind of status quo."

Crew chiefs can spend hours devising a race plan, only to see their hard work go up in smoke -- or sparks -- when things inevitably go wrong on the track. A cool demeanor comes in handy then.

Francis said the ability to improvise is critical in overcoming the bad situations that crop up at the most unexpected moments during a race. Whether it's a bad pit stop, repairing crash damage or trying to make adjustments on the car, a crew chief needs to be able to think on the fly -- and keep the driver and crew focused on the task at hand.

UPS... Game Changing Moments

"You definitely have to be able to react," Francis said. "A lot of times you'll have adversity. You've got to have a race car that will come through the field, and that's probably the most important thing. You can still move through the field, but it's not going to be like a knife through butter."

It's a job that demands not only attention to detail but also a bit of creativity. Communication between driver and crew chief is paramount. They almost need to be of a single mind at times, with each being able to guess what the other might be thinking.

Perhaps that's the main reason why Kahne and Francis have stayed together, despite having made several moves. They started with Ray Evernham, then moved on to Richard Petty, Red Bull and now Rick Hendrick's organization.

With so many factors to be weighed, and so much at stake, the logical assumption would be that veteran crew chiefs might have the upper hand. But Francis said what might work one time doesn't necessarily guarantee success the next.

"It's definitely important to have some experience, but sometimes experience is overrated," Francis said. "I think every situation is different. Some situations, it matters. And then in other ones, it doesn't. Or maybe you're better off not being experienced and just winging it.