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Aumann: Crew chiefs staying with driver a thing of the past

December 30, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Just three current pairings have been together for more than 100 races

Jake Elder got the nickname "Suitcase" for the sheer number of jobs he held during his tenure as a NASCAR crew chief. In an era when drivers and crew chiefs stayed together season after season, Elder's lengthy and varied resume was considered unusual.

Every superstar driver needs a top-notch crew chief, and usually that means a long-term relationship. That was the case for years: Fireball Roberts and Smokey Yunick. David Pearson and Leonard Wood. Cale Yarborough and Herb Nab. Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond. Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine. Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham.

Topping them all had to be the pairing of cousins Richard Petty and Dale Inman. Inman took over crew chief duties for the King in 1960 and led the famous No. 43 to 192 wins -- five of those in the Daytona 500 -- and seven championships in two decades. Then after leaving Petty Enterprises, Inman added another Cup title with Terry Labonte in 1984.

As for Elder, he stuck to the task long enough to win a pair of titles with Pearson in 1968 and 1969, later getting Earnhardt's career off to a winning start.

But Elder's ability to quickly pack up and move on would have allowed him to fit in nicely in today's Cup Series, where the crew chief hiring carousel is spinning wildly. Job security? Not when the pink slips and offer sheets are fluttering down like snowflakes in a blizzard.

It's not surprising that struggling teams look to make changes in an effort to shake up the status quo. But it is when teams at the top of their game go that route. And the speed and intensity with which crew chiefs are being replaced is increasing exponentially.

A year ago, Rick Hendrick stunned the Cup garage when he took the unprecedented step of changing three of his four driver-crew chief connections. Now, four of the 12 crew chiefs who made the Chase -- including champion head wrench Darian Grubb -- have switched teams the past month.

Mike Ford came within one tank of gas of the 2010 Cup title and had been atop Denny Hamlin's pit box for 223 consecutive races. That is, until team owner Joe Gibbs decided Grubb was a better alternative. Steve Addington went from Penske to Stewart-Haas. And Kevin Harvick will be chatting on the radio with Shane Wilson in 2012.

That doesn't even count Greg Biffle, who switched to Matt Puccia midway through the season, or Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, A.J. Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Juan Montoya, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin, all of whom will have new crew chiefs at Daytona.

How wacky has this become? Casey Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker -- who have combined for 47 consecutive race starts, not counting races in which Mears failed to qualify -- are now ninth on the active Cup seniority list. And right behind them in 10th are David Gilliland and crew chief Peter Sospenzo with 41 ... that is, if Gilliland returns to Front Row in 2012.

With most of the shuffling now complete, it leaves just two active driver-crew chief combinations which have been together for more than three full Cup seasons.

One's pretty easy to guess: Chad Knaus has been Jimmie Johnson's crew chief for all 10 of his full-time Cup seasons, a total of 360 consecutive starts -- although Knaus has been on the pit box for only 352. Grubb was acting crew chief for the No. 48 Chevrolet for the first four races of 2006, and Ron Malec took over for a four-race stretch in 2007 -- as Knaus sat out a pair of NASCAR-imposed suspensions.

With the dissolution of the Hamlin-Ford relationship, moving into second place are Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne, with 182 consecutive race starts. Osborne replaced Wally Brown near the end of the 2006 season and has been the voice in Edwards' headset since -- not counting Osborne's six-race suspension in 2008.

That means Ryan Newman and Tony Gibson, who have been paired together since they were hired at Stewart-Haas Racing at the beginning of 2009, are third in seniority with 108 consecutive starts. They're followed by Kyle Busch and Dave Rogers, who began working together later that season.

And the pairings of Jamie McMurray-Kevin Manion and Paul Menard-Slugger Labbe have only been in effect since the beginning of 2010.

Perhaps an asterisk can be placed on the pairing of Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis, who are moving as a set from Red Bull to Hendrick Motorsports, just as they did from Petty to Red Bull at the end of 2010.

Francis first worked atop Kahne's pit box at Homestead at the end of the 2005 season -- and has been his crew chief since. The exception, however, is the five races that Kahne worked with Jimmy Elledge at Red Bull in 2010 before Francis rejoined him.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.