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Caraviello: For crew chiefs, redemption almost weekly occurrence

July 06, 2011, David Caraviello,

For crew chiefs such as Blickensderfer, redemption an almost weekly occurrence

The last time Drew Blickensderfer's name came up in casual conversation among NASCAR fans, it was for the reason every crew chief probably eventually expects, but likely dreads still the same. Matt Kenseth walked into the media room at Auto Club Speedway in late February of 2010 and told the assembled scribes that he didn't see the spark and energy that he was looking for in his No. 17 team, which the previous year had missed the Chase for the first time. And that, he explained, was why he was parting ways with Blickensderfer -- the young crew chief with whom he had won the first two Sprint Cup races, the Daytona 500 among them, the season before.

It was a meteoric rise and equally as brisk fall for a previously unknown crew chief out of the Nationwide Series who had won his first two races on NASCAR's premier circuit. After barely a year in a seat atop the No. 17 pit box that many would struggle to fill in the absence of Robbie Reiser, Blickensderfer slipped into the nether-region of research and development. Team owner Jack Roush said at the time that he hoped Blickensderfer would one day make an impact with one of his other Sprint Cup programs. Given the occasion, though, it was statement that seemed easy to dismiss.

"Jack told me from day one that I'd be up here when the time was right again. It's been really nice. ... Definitely feel a little redemption."


Fast forward, then, to Saturday night, and a jubilant scene in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway, complete with beverages being sprayed and confetti falling and fireworks booming overhead. It was David Ragan's moment, no question, redemption not only for a driver who had blown his chance with an illegal lane change in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 months earlier, but also for a competitor who had always seemed capable of experiencing this kind of success at the summit of NASCAR, yet had never been able to get there. For someone whose job always seemed to be in jeopardy, whose sponsor always seemed to have better options, it was an experience to savor regardless of what had happened back in February.

And yet, Ragan wasn't the only person in Victory Lane feeling a little long-deserved personal satisfaction. With nine races remaining last season, Blickensderfer once again made the move up from the Nationwide to the Sprint Cup tour, this time taking over a No. 6 team where he had broken in as a tire changer and mechanic. His start with Ragan -- a 24th-place finish at Dover and a 16th-place result at Kansas -- wasn't nearly as spectacular as the one he had enjoyed with Kenseth. The growth was much more gradual and, potentially, longer-lasting. By the end of last season, they were bidding to get into the top 10. By the start of this one, they were bidding to win.

Saturday night they did, finishing the job at Daytona, and adding Ragan's name to the growing list of serious Chase contenders under the wild-card format implemented prior to the season. Ragan got to do the burnouts, stand triumphantly on top of the car, hold the big trophy. Blickensderfer got to do exactly what his car owner had said he would -- make an impact with another Roush Fenway race program. The gratification was as obvious as the brown and gold sponsor logo stripped across the front of his chest.

"You want to be a winner," Blickensderfer said Saturday. "I was real fortunate right off the get go to win a couple of races. I probably had 34, 35 races in a row ... I felt like I failed quite a bit. Yeah, I counted every one of them. And to come back and get a second opportunity, it's something that Jack told me from day one that I'd be up here when the time was right again. It's been really nice. Coming over here, [nine] races to go in the season last year, I felt like we gained some momentum. Then working this year with David and the guys, I think our mind-set's gotten better throughout the year. We felt like we were a top-20 team to start the year, and a top-15, and 10, and now we sit here as the winner. I think that momentum keeps building. Definitely feel a little redemption."

And with it, yet another reminder to never sell crew chiefs short based solely on a single negative episode in their careers. Once he reaches NASCAR's top level, a crew chief not named Knaus or Evernham can be guaranteed of pretty much two things -- he's going to set up cars, and he's going to eventually be replaced. Practitioners of the most thankless jobs in the garage area, crew chiefs are last to get the credit when things are going well, and first to get shuffled out if things are going poorly. Potentially getting canned or reassigned is an occupational hazard right up there with grease under the fingernails. The fact that it didn't work out between Blickensderfer and Kenseth doesn't mean the crew chief can't set up a car -- something he proved time and time again on the Nationwide tour, and once more with Ragan on Saturday night.

Blickensderfer is in good company. A glance at the top 12 in Sprint Cup points reveals a number of crew chiefs, all of them at the top of their profession, who have had their careers interrupted in one manner or another. Bob Osborne was reassigned from Carl Edwards' team to that of former Roush counterpart Jamie McMurray before eventually being reunited with the No. 99 program. Dave Rogers, now Kyle Busch's crew chief, was fired from his first job at the Sprint Cup level, with Jason Leffler and a not-ready-for-prime-time No. 11 program at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kurt Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, was fired from the same position with Kyle in 2009. Jimmy Fennig, now with Kenseth, wound up in research and development at Roush after winless stretches with Ragan and McMurray.

Steve Letarte, who has Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoying his most promising season in years, had a long stint with Jeff Gordon ended last season after he was reassigned from the driver in a sweeping personnel shift. Shane Wilson, currently crew chief for Clint Bowyer, was in the same position in the mid-2000s with a No. 77 team at Penske Racing that was eventually put into hibernation due to a lack of sponsorship. Even Chad Knaus once faced the prospect of being split from Jimmie Johnson, the relationship salvaged by Rick Hendrick's now-famous "milk and cookies" meeting -- you act like children, the car owner said, then I'll treat you that way -- late in a fractious 2005 campaign.

All of those episodes can be viewed as negative, all of them can be seen as ultimately stemming from performance issues, and none of them defined crew chiefs who all went on to bigger and better things. Look at the career ups and downs of Slugger Labbe, who is doing a fine job helping Paul Menard break through to the next level. Look at Pete Rondeau, once thrown to the wolves at Dale Earnhardt Inc., who won the Southern 500 this year with Regan Smith. Look at everyone's favorite crew chief whipping boy, Tony Eury Jr., who in five months has helped Danica Patrick go from lost in Daytona's tandem drafting setup to almost able to win in it. For crew chiefs, redemption is almost a weekly occurrence. It's as much as part of the job as taking two tires or four.

So it is with Blickensderfer, whose initial breakthrough with Kenseth, and those heady first two victories that followed, masked larger issues with setups and simulation software that would eventually derail the entire Roush program for much of last season. So it is with every man who decides to strap on a headset and sit atop a pit box for a living. This Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, there will be another crew chief in Victory Lane, one who doubt will find some degree of redemption in the experience. And then Monday morning will come, and like every other crew chief, he'll go back to trying to keep his job.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.