Ives to benefit Earnhardt in more ways than one
July 30, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Through seven years and five championship runs, Greg Ives was the quiet man atop the No. 48 pit box. It was crew chief Chad Knaus who brought the steel, who could raise the tenor of his voice over the radio, who at times could even put the whip to his driver or pit crew. Then there was Ives, who as lead engineer helped shape the strategy that won all those titles, quiet and calculating and somewhat unknown even to Jimmie Johnson's most ardent fans.
That's changed somewhat over the past two years, as Ives stepped out of the shadows and into a crew chief's role of his own at Hendrick Motorsports' Nationwide Series affiliate JR Motorsports, first for Regan Smith last year in a tight championship campaign and then for phenom Chase Elliott. And it will certainly escalate next year, when Ives steps into the most scrutinized crew chief's position in NASCAR, and succeeds Steve Letarte on the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
To be certain, this moved seemed a possibility from the beginning, given that -- as was the case with Knaus and Letarte -- it's Hendrick policy to promote from within. Still, there were good reasons to believe the car owner would look elsewhere. Here is a relatively young crew chief who has clearly built a bond with his young driver, as Elliott has evidenced by winning three times thus far on the Nationwide circuit. When Ives was switched from the team of Smith to Elliott prior to this season, the reasoning seemed clear -- here were two competitors who could progress together, all the way up to the Sprint Cup Series when that day inevitably came.
At least, that was the thinking until Wednesday, when Hendrick zigged when everyone else expected a zag, and indeed named Ives as the successor to Letarte, who will move into the television booth for NBC Sports beginning next year. "Greg was our No. 1 choice," Hendrick said in the release announcing the move, and it's easy to see why. Ives' pending promotion not only provides Earnhardt with another crew chief he's very comfortable with -- heck, as an owner of JRM, he's even Ives' boss at the moment -- but it further strengthens the bonds between the 88 and 48 teams, enhancing a relationship that's been as central to Earnhardt's turnaround as anyone else.
But first, Ives. When I first interviewed him in early 2013 after he had taken the reigns of Smith's team at JRM, the expectation was of a Knaus clone -- accommodating enough, but guarded and maybe even hesitant. Instead, the now 36-year-old proved affable and easy to talk to, much like the man he will be replacing on the No. 88 team at the end of this season. He spoke at length about growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, about driving late models while working as his own crew chief, about originally envisioning a career as a pediatrician until his father convinced him his future was in motorsports.
"From that point, it became a passion," Ives said then. "It became something I had to work hard toward, just because I wasn't in the nucleus of North Carolina. I was in Michigan. I was an outsider. I had to do something that made me a little bit different, and not just a mechanic. Not just a driver. Not just an engineer. I was a combination of all of three. I was able to climb the ladder and have doors open in the right fashion for me to be able to walk through."
He set the goal of getting to Hendrick in 10 years, and made it in nine. A cousin's son-in-law working as a mechanic on Jeff Gordon's program passed his resume along to team manager Brian Whitesell, and Ives was hired as a tear-down mechanic shortly after graduating from Michigan Tech in 2003. Two years later, he was a setup engineer for Gordon. Prior to the 2006 campaign, Knaus asked him to become No. 48 team engineer -- on the same day Ives discovered his wife was pregnant. His first race was the 2006 Daytona 500. He finished that day in Victory Lane.
So yes, though Ives has never worked as a crew chief at NASCAR's highest level, the resume is ironclad -- championship DNA from years with Johnson's team, five victories and counting in less than two seasons on the box in the Nationwide Series, an approachable manner that Letarte has proven works for Earnhardt over the radio in the heat of competition. During his time with Ives, Smith raved about his crew chief's ability to keep him calm during tense moments, which will be a point of emphasis with Earnhardt. And perhaps just as importantly, Ives next year will reunite with his old boss Knaus in Hendrick's 48/88 shop, the two of them standing as equals, and no doubt strengthening the bonds between the two most symbiotic programs in NASCAR today.
Letarte's arrival in late 2010 coincided with Hendrick's decision to rearrange his team pairings, and place the 88 and 48 programs under the same roof. That raised some eyebrows at the time given that it broke up the wildly successful combination of the 24 and 48 teams, the former of which was established when the latter came along, and played a major role in helping get Johnson and Knaus quickly up to speed. But for 2011 it was the No. 48 team's turn to help lift a counterpart, in this case the No. 88 program of Earnhardt that had lingered in the 20s in final points the previous two seasons.
Everything clicked. Letarte provided Earnhardt with the accountability and positive reinforcement the driver had lacked, while the confidence and winning culture created by Johnson and Knaus permeated the No. 88 program. Ever since, we've witnessed notable improvement in Earnhardt's results, not to mention success for both programs along parallel tracks. When Johnson has a strong car, Earnhardt often does as well. The six-time champion may win more often, but his team has also helped Earnhardt find his stride, and this year NASCAR's most popular driver is in the midst of his best season in a decade.
The presence of Ives, who sat so long at Knaus' side as the No. 48 team racked up one title after another, will only enhance that combination, only increase the odds of Johnson and Earnhardt both arriving at the track with stout vehicles from the drop of the transporter door. They may have different personalities, but Ives and Knaus are both fierce competitors and proven winners, with mentalities that can encourage the best from their drivers. For the No. 88 team, there was really no other choice. No wonder, then, Hendrick called Greg Ives his No. 1 pick.