Parrott suspension returns Johns to pit box
October 18, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Former crew chief looks to lead Almirola, historic No. 43 to Victory Lane
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Sammy Johns woke up Thursday morning in his usual capacity as director of operations at Richard Petty Motorsports. He was at Talladega Superspeedway on Friday morning as the crew chief of the organization's flagship No. 43 car.
That sudden transition was the most immediate consequence of the surprise suspension on Thursday of Todd Parrott, who has called signals for the No. 43 team since the start of this season, and whose second stint with the Petty organization began in 2010. Winner of the 1999 premier series championship with Dale Jarrett, Parrott was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for an unspecified violation of the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy.
When Parrott might return is unclear. Substance abuse violators in NASCAR typically undertake a mandatory Road to Recovery program tailored to the specific infraction. AJ Allmendinger did just that after being suspended last year for what he later said was Adderall use, and has since returned to claim a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series victories and secure a full-time ride in the No. 47 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car for next season.
Johns said he's been in regular contact with Parrott since the suspension came down Thursday. "He's doing OK," he said of the crew chief, although he wouldn't speculate on Parrott's future with a straight-laced Petty organization that's historically shied away from even alcohol sponsorship on its No. 43 car.
"We're not commenting on his potential future right now," Johns said of Parrott. "It's (a human resources) matter. Right now, we're going to deal with that next week. This kind of all happened quick, and we had to get here to Talladega. So we'll deal with that that next week."
With Parrott out of the picture, Johns said car chief Greg Ebert and engineers Marc Hendricksen and Derek Stamets will carry more of a load in preparing Aric Almirola's vehicle at the 2.66-mile facility. And the mission remains the same, even with the program's regular crew chief at home.
"Everybody's disappointed," Johns said. "But overall, I think everyone's morale and mood is still the same. We still have a job to do. Talladega, we come here, this is a great shot for us to try and win a race. So I think everyone's mood and focus is still on that."
For Johns, the situation involves a return to the crew chief's role for the first time since the final race of the 2009 campaign, when he served in that same role for Reed Sorenson and RPM's No. 43. That race ended with a 40th-place finish. "Crashed on pit road," Johns recalled. "We ran into the back into the back of Elliott Sadler on pit road. Knocked the radiator out of it."
Things have improved in the Petty shop since then, thanks to a reorganization and a partnering with entrepreneur Andrew Murstein that has put the team on a better financial and competitive footing. But although Marcos Ambrose has won a Sprint Cup road course race in both 2011 and 2012, the No. 43 is still looking for its first victory since John Andretti triumphed at Martinsville in 1999.
Johns figures Talladega is as good a place as any to snap that drought, particularly considering the shocker David Ragan pulled here in the spring. Almirola certainly has a fast car, as he showed by leading Friday's opening Sprint Cup practice with a speed of 202 mph.
"As good as anybody's in the garage right now," Johns said when asked about their chances. "I think David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports showed the smaller teams really have a shot here if we can be in position. Our plan's going to be to race up front all day the best we can, and try to be there at the end, and hopefully he and Marcos can get together at the end and we can get a 1-2 finish for Richard Petty Motorsports. That would be really awesome."
Although Johns hasn't worked a race as a crew chief in nearly four years, he knows the drill. The Tampa Bay native has called 185 events at NASCAR's top level, posting best finishes of third with Casey Atwood at Homestead in 2001, and with Allmendinger in the 2009 Daytona 500. After starting out with David Green and Buz McCall's short-lived American Equipment Racing in 1997, he's since worked with Andy Petree, Ray Evernham and the former MB2 outfit, with drivers including Ken Schrader and Bill Elliott.
As RPM's operations director, Johns said he's a regular in competition meetings with the team's engineers and crew chiefs, and is up to speed on the current Sprint Cup car. And if he has to call a race after a four-year layoff, he said a restrictor-plate track isn't a bad place to start.
"If you've got to come back after that long and do it, Talladega's probably the right place to do it, because it's one of the easier races to call and there's not a lot of things you can do with the chassis," Johns said. "Martinsville and Texas and those places might be a different story. If you have to come back and knock the cobwebs off, here is probably the place to do it."
The crew chief position on the No. 43 car will be determined on a week-to-week basis going forward, so Johns wouldn't say if he'd be on the box again at Martinsville. That means Talladega could loom as one golden opportunity for Almirola and Johns each to reach Victory Lane for the first time, and for the No. 43 to return there after a 14-year drought.
"It's always going to be special for whoever gets that car back to Victory Lane for the first time in a long time," Johns said. "I'd like to be that person, and be in the role of crew chief when that happens."