Five-time winner joins Sam Hornish Jr. as a refreshed man
After he split with Richard Petty Motorsports in April of last season, Greg Erwin took two months off. He reconnected with his family. He thought about his future. And the crew chief -- who had won five races and three times qualified a car for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- asked himself if he could exist in any industry other than motorsports.
These days the answer is clear, encapsulated by Erwin’s presence at Penske Racing overseeing the organization’s No. 12 car on the Nationwide Series. A crew chief who helped turn Greg Biffle into a championship contender at Roush Fenway Racing, Erwin will now try to do the same for former Indianapolis 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr., who enjoyed his best season in NASCAR by finishing fourth in the final Nationwide points standings last year.
“I want to win,” Erwin said. “I don’t want to collect a paycheck in this business riding around. That’s not my goal. You can collect a paycheck doing plenty of other things. If you’re not going to be competitive to win races, with the thrill of race day and all the fanfare and prepping the car and working all the hours it takes to put this thing on the race track … you’re missing the final chapter in the book. I wanted to put myself in a position where I could win again, and I think I found it.”
It’s been a while since Erwin was able to feel that way. He enjoyed four very good years with Biffle, finishing third in championship points in 2008. But midway through the 2011 season and with Biffle lagging 16th in points, Roush made a change, and Matt Puccia was called up from research and development to oversee the No. 16 team. Erwin wound up at Roush-affiliated RPM, and enjoyed some nice runs with AJ Allmendinger before that driver was chosen by Penske to replace the outgoing Kurt Busch.
"We’ve got a guy here who we think can be a winner..."
-- Roger Penske
From there, it went downhill. Erwin was paired with Aric Almirola, things never really clicked and nine races into the 2012 campaign he was replaced by Mike Ford. Erwin has been around long enough to understand events like that are the nature of his profession.
“It was probably the first time in 16 years I’ve been without a job in racing,” he said. “There are moves people have to make in this business. Managers have to mix things up occasionally. It’s no different than a football coach pulling a starting quarterback and putting another one in, trying to make something happen. And so I understand that goes on. I think it’s just what you sign up for when you take this job. You’re not going to have the long-standing relationship with an owner, with a team, that a lot of guys in this industry have been fortunate to have.”
So he started making phone calls, looking for a job. How his name surfaced at Penske, he isn’t exactly sure. He knew a lot of people who worked for the team, including some who worked for him when he was crew chief for Robby Gordon. There was a Ford connection -- Penske switched this season to Roush’s longtime carmaker -- but he doesn’t know if anyone with the manufacturer recommended him. Regardless, the car owner thinks Erwin’s a good fit, particularly since Penske continues to evaluate expanding to a third Sprint Cup team.
“I think getting Erwin was a real plus for us,” Roger Penske said. “I don’t know all the circumstances that went over with Biffle, but Biffle was very successful with him for quite a while. And the fact that he would come with us -- we said to Greg Erwin, ‘OK, you’ve got to come into the organization and show us what you can do. You have all the tools. We’ve got a guy here who we think can be a winner, and I think together, we’re going to see that.’ Plus, we’ve got a crew chief there who can move up. … Now we’re putting a third person in line.”
Hornish thinks he and his new crew chief have much in common, given that both had their careers interrupted by circumstances, and faced real decisions on how to continue. For Erwin, it was the split with Biffle and seven months away from the track after his break with RPM. For Hornish, it was a reduced Nationwide slate in 2011 mandated by a sponsorship shortage.
“You sit down, and he says, ‘Oh, I was sitting at home watching races on TV and working on a car.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I was sitting at home watching races on TV and building a tree house,’ ” Hornish said. “I think there’s a lot of people who work in the racing business, and there are a lot of people who are racers. The guys who are out of a job, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t find anything, I’ll go do something else.’ Those are people who are in racing. … But the people who fight though the adversity of it to get where they want to be? Those are racers.”
And that’s Erwin, to the core. Since coming on board with Penske, he’s watched video of more than 20 of Hornish’s events from last season, and noticed that his new driver was often in the top five toward the end of races, but not always able to close them out. “The opportunity now is to try and build what I’ve been calling a stronger ‘red zone’ offense,” Erwin said. “They can get there. They need to be able to get the ball in the end zone.”
Erwin said he bears no ill will over how his tenure ended with Biffle, and thinks that crew chief and driver ultimately helped make one another better. He understands the possibility of change arises anytime there’s a decline in performance like the one he went through with the No. 16 team in 2011. But he also believes he’s learned from that experience, and will be better at his new job as a result.
“When you have time to look back over it, clear-headed and clear-minded and without the pressure of the weekly performance kind of bearing down on you, there are things that become very clear,” said Erwin, who replaced Chad Walter, now at Michael Waltrip Racing. “And there are some things I’m certainly going to do a better job of going forward.”
His driver can certainly relate -- after all, they’ve both been there.
“I feel like Greg has a lot to prove,” Hornish said. “He’s a race-winning and a Chase-making crew chief, and I’m going to put a lot on his shoulders this year. I’ve already had so much interaction with him, I start to see what some of the differences might be, and I’m looking forward to it.”