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Teams strive to match driver with right mix of a crew chief

April 27, 2011, Jill Erwin,

Teams strive to match driver with right mix of a crew chief

There are no guarantees for relationships in the NASCAR garage. Notoriously fickle when it comes to their partners, drivers live it up while they can and move on to the next one just as quickly.

Into that steps Robbie Reiser.

As the general manager of Roush Fenway Racing, he has quite a bit of experience in making relationships work. He plays a large role in the most essential of matchmaking duties: pairing up crew chiefs and drivers.

"It's a difficult decision," Reiser said. "You've got to think a lot about it, especially if you're going to be a major part of it.

"Probably more than anything, it's trust and respect. That's the key if it's going to be long term."

There may be hope for lifelong matches, but there are also those who play the field. David Hyder, crew chief for Kevin Harvick Inc.'s No. 33 car, is slated to work with five different drivers this season.

But somewhere in the mix with Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon and Scott Speed is the heart of Hyder's outlook: Just as one should never change for another, he stays true to himself and the team, regardless of who's in the seat.

"I try not to change my thinking or the way I go about working on the car just because a different name is over the door," Hyder said. "It's all dictated over how many sets of tires you get and how many you use in practice and how many you have for the race."

Figuring out the right match is far from an exact science. Some can work out like fairy tales -- Reiser worked with Matt Kenseth for 11 seasons -- while others are more like a collection of short stories; Kenseth has had four Cup Series crew chiefs in the three-plus seasons since Reiser's promotion.

It's not an easy job to put people together on a multimillion-dollar team -- much more psychiatry than blind guesses. Do you match the veteran with the veteran? Or let the experienced crew chief mold the young buck of a driver? Does an introspective crew chief get overshadowed by an extroverted driver, or does he need someone to push him past his comfort zone?

It's a balancing act, to be sure, and one Reiser seems to enjoy.

He said the pairing of Carl Edwards and Mike Beam, who won last week at Nashville, was a no-brainer. Both veterans, the two work together well. For young guns Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and relative newcomer Trevor Bayne, it was a different challenge.

"Ricky has a lot of raw talent and we had to figure out how to harness all that," Reiser said. "Trying to tie the brain to the foot was a lot of what we needed to do. Mike [Kelley]'s background, coming up through the ranks of Jimmy Fennig, he had a lot of experience. At first we thought we needed to team him up with someone more experienced, but sometimes it works for two young guys to go together. Ricky wants to win tomorrow and win a championship tomorrow, and Mike's a lot like that also.

"Trevor had the raw talent but technically was not going to be as strong. With the direction this racing is going, you have to have that type of crew chief. When we looked at that, Chris [Andrews] was a big part of our engineering program at that time, and that was the best opportunity to get [Trevor] caught up."

But man, when it works, it works. Jason Ratcliff and Kyle Busch are on top of the world right now, having won 30 of the 88 races Busch has started in the No. 18 in the past four seasons. Whether the driver and crew chief have to like each other or merely understand each other, Ratcliff says he has it both ways.

"I think it's important you like each other, but more important is you respect each other," Ratcliff said. "That guy is giving me 110 percent of his job responsibility. If I feel like I'm giving 110 percent and the crew is giving 110 percent and the driver is only giving 70, things are not going to work out well. It's just going to go the wrong direction, so you have to have respect."

For Ratcliff, it's about building on strengths. He has to take into account when Busch is riled up and just needs to blow off some steam, and conversely when Busch is cracking jokes and Ratcliff has to rein him in a little.

During the Nashville race, the 41-year-old Ratcliff was educated over the radio by his soon-to-be-26-year-old charge about Anchorman with what seemed to be a non-sequitur intro by Busch of "I love lamp."

The two enjoyed the exchange, but there are times Ratcliff can't be quite as open.

"I try to ask before I say something, 'Will something positive come from it, or will it just make me feel better?' " Ratcliff said. "If it just is going to make me feel better, then I keep my mouth shut. If I feel like something good can come from it, even if it may not be what he wants to hear right now, then I'll say it."

It takes time to reach that level of intimacy. Justin Allgaier is in his first year working with Jimmy Elledge, but the two have risen to the top of the point standings.

"Getting together with Jimmy is good," Allgaier said. "We're both calm personalities. We're both racers. He's been around it his whole life. He's been in a race car, he understands.

"He understands what I'm trying to tell him when I say it. We always joke that it's probably really boring to listen to our radio because neither one of us really get all that excited about anything."

Above all, to have a "happily ever after," the two have to communicate and be humble and work to be better. That works even for a driver like Busch.

"We've both made many mistakes, me on the pit box, him on the race track, but we're very open about it," Ratcliff said. "We talk about it, 'What could we have done better?' I take blame where I could have improved and he does the same. As long as you have that, you show progress."