News & Media

New crew chiefs usher in era of good feeling

July 29, 2011, David Caraviello,

INDIANAPOLIS -- Four drivers come to Indianapolis with new leaders, renewed optimism

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always come easy to Juan Montoya. His first time around in an open-wheel car, he remembers, it took only three or four laps to get up to full speed. His dominant victory in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 felt effortless. He's been the class of the Brickyard 400 the past two years, although a speeding penalty and then a poorly-timed four-tire call denied him the golden brick trophy in each instance. Even so, he still likes this place so much that he even shows up to watch the track's annual motorcycle race.

So perhaps it's only fitting that Montoya believes he can still come to Indianapolis and run well -- contend for the victory, even -- despite weathering a crew chief change on the eve of what many view as his best chance to record that long-awaited first oval-track victory on NASCAR's premier circuit.

"So what, you've got to go to a track where you run bad to make [a change] OK? What's the right place to do it or the wrong place to do it?" Montoya asked Friday, as teams opened practice for the 18th Brickyard 400. "If you're going to make a change, this is the right time of the year to make a change, because if everything changes smooth you can still perform. You can still get a couple of wins and get in the Chase, or run good and get in the Chase. We made a lot of silly mistakes the last few races where we've run out of gas and stuff and lost a lot of points, but it is the way it is. I think we've given ourselves enough time before the end of the season to prepare for next year and everything."

The time around Sprint Cup's late summer off week has traditionally been a popular one for teams to make changes to programs that aren't necessarily heading in the right direction, and this year has proven no different. Since the days leading up to the most recent race two weeks ago at New Hampshire, four teams have made crew chief changes, including Montoya's, where Brian Pattie was replaced by Jim Pohlman. Greg Biffle's team slotted Matt Puccia in place of Greg Erwin, who was subsequently hired to succeed Mike Shiplett on A.J. Allmendinger's crew. And most recently, Jeff Burton's crew chief Todd Berrier was removed in favor of Luke Lambert.

It's a flurry of personnel activity, all undertaken by teams currently outside of Chase contention, but who all think they can win one [or more] of the seven remaining regular-season races and sneak into the playoff. "Everybody's got so much pressure to perform," Biffle said. "Everybody's got so much pressure to perform and win races and be competitive. I don't know what everybody else's issues are, but I imagine they're the same. We just needed a fresh look at what we were doing to try and be better."

For teams mired low in the standings, stuck in positions they're not accustomed to, crew chief changes can bring with them optimism and new ideas. Lambert is a 28-year-old former team engineer with Richard Childress Racing who will be working as a crew chief for the first time. Pohlman is a former engineer in Earnhardt Ganassi's research and development department who is also making his maiden voyage atop the pit box. Puccia is a former Nationwide Series crew chief who most recently worked in R&D at Roush Fenway Racing. The three newcomers are now tasked with rebuilding established teams that have proven they can contend for race wins and championships.

"I think the main thing for Luke is, he's 28 years old, he has a lot to learn, but his personality is such that he's going to really, really use the people around him to make him feel better," Burton said. "He's very open-minded. I think for me, I want him to be Luke. I don't want him to try to become Chad Knaus or try to become somebody else. I want him to be himself. That's why he's in this position. We want to have success. At the end of the day we want to have success, but I think the way that we'll have success is by Luke recognizing the things that he doesn't know because of his inexperience, and taking advantage of the things that he does know because of his background with his education."

Montoya speaks similarly about his new crew chief, Pohlman, whom he got to know when he was working on the car of former teammate David Stremme. "It's good," said Montoya, whose former crew chief Pattie is still with EGR, although his role is yet to be determined. "He's very open-minded, he really wants to get the job done. It's fun. You have somebody so pumped to get the job done, that's what it takes."

Biffle believes Puccia brings a different approach to some of the problems that have been plaguing the No. 16 team -- fuel issues, primarily -- along with crew chief experience. "Matt's been a crew chief, knows how to make calls, knows track position is important, all those kinds of things," Biffle said. "He's aware of what he needs to do. I don't think the transition period is all that much. He's really in tune with the race cars, he's working on the cars, he's down there at night babysitting them, he's working with his guys, he's got a plan. I think it's going to be good."

At this point in the relationship, everyone does -- which is why it's called the honeymoon period. All that optimism masks a sometimes-tricky get-to-know-you stage in which drivers and their new crew chiefs must learn to adapt to one another, in everything from schedules to language on the radio to setups on the car. "It's been chaotic," Burton said of the experience thus far. David Ragan understands, given that he witnessed it first-hand last season when Drew Blickensderfer took over his No. 6 team late in the year.

"[Pohlman's] very open-minded, he really wants to get the job done. It's fun. You have somebody so pumped to get the job done, that's what it takes."


"It's the new guy coming in and saying, 'hey, this is the way I want you to talk over the radio, this is the way I communicate with your spotter, this is the way we're going to dissect the race weekend on Monday, here's what time I want you to be here,' " Ragan said. "So yeah, it's a little different feel. Everyone is different. It's a good feeling when you get that common ground where you agree a lot with what your crew chief has to say."

In-house crew chief changes at Roush, Matt Kenseth said, are aided by staff-wide meetings in which ideas are shared and recommended setups are passed out, facts that help keep everyone on the same page. Still, some combinations click immediately and some don't, and it can take trial and error to find the right ones. One early stumbling block in the relationship between any new driver and crew chief can be something as elementary as the language, given how terminology and communication preferences can vary from one person to another.

"I don't think it's so much how he wants to set up a car. The biggest thing to learn is maybe each others' language, and during a race how much you need to adjust," said Kenseth, who changed crew chiefs twice last year, most recently to Jimmy Fennig, with whom he's won two races this season. "Loose to me might not be the same as loose to Kurt Busch when [Fennig] worked with him. So I think to give each other information, and make the changes ... [as to] what he likes to feel, I think that's the biggest thing."

But there are no guarantees. In most cases, the new crew chief is being asked to turn around a program that's been trending the wrong direction for a while, and in some cases they're doing it with far less experience than their predecessors. Right now, positive vibrations abound, and with reason given how tired those involved are of running in place, and how ready they are to change it. That era of good feeling, though, does not last forever.

"It can be difficult," said Kenny Francis, crew chief on Kasey Kahne's No. 4 car, who will follow the driver to Hendrick's No. 5 next season. "In some situations you're dropped into a new deal with different equipment -- everything is similar, yet it's subtlety different. People that are used to a different style of how to set their car up, you have to try and find a middle ground on that compatibility, try to figure out where the equipment itself lies, and if you know something about the bodies or chassis that can improve that situation. So yeah, it's tough to get dropped in there and take off running. In some of those situations, it will probably work out good. In some of them, it will probably be the same."

For now, though, there is only hope and potential. Montoya's No. 42 team is so bullish on its chances at Indianapolis -- where the driver has led 116 and 86 laps, respectively, in the past two events -- that it plans to use primarily the same setup it had under the hood last year, tweaked a little with some knowledge gained in a recent tire test here. The engineers and support staff around him, Montoya said, are still the same. He dismissed the idea that any differences in terminology would be a barrier to winning at the Brickyard on Sunday. New crew chief? No problem. At Indy, all systems are go.

"Everybody's excited and pumped up," Montoya said. "You're always a little nervous to see what's going to happen, but everybody says, oh, is this a good place to make a change? I think it's as good as any, to be honest with you."