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With rookie Larson, Owens finds a first

April 12, 2013, David Caraviello,

Crew chief Owens has made the rounds, but still values the learning experiences

FORT WORTH, Texas -- For Kyle Larson, everything is new. From tracks to procedures to accomplishments, so much seems untrodden for a driver journeying through a full NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign for the first time. And the same might be said for his crew chief, even if he’s seen and done it all before.

Trent Owens has been a fixture in the NASCAR garages for nearly a decade now, ever since his hopes of making it behind the wheel gave way to an engineering degree and a role atop the pit box. Over that time, the nephew to Richard Petty has worked with a staggering number of drivers -- “I lost count,” he says when asked how many -- and through that experience developed an open mind and a knack for adaptation.

But even a crew chief who’s worked with 32 different drivers at the national level can discover a new experience, and he’s in the middle of one right now. Owens has won five races at the Nationwide level, worked with the likes of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne. But now with Larson, the 20-year-old wunderkind who’s fast in everything he drives, the veteran crew chief is competing for a championship for the first time.

"I see the different driving styles, I see the different trends of how they race. …I just go at it with an open mind. I think that helps."

-- Trent Owens

“This is really the first year I’ve had one driver that’s going to be with me the entire season,” Owens said inside the No. 32 team hauler at Texas Motor Speedway. “I’ve never run for a championship myself, so that’s going to be fun.”

It already has been, with Larson seventh in points and coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes. First with Braun Racing and then with Turner Scott Motorsports, Owens was a crew chief who juggled multiple drivers, adjusting to new attitudes and styles almost on a week-to-week basis. He worked with nine different drivers last year alone, winning with James Buescher at Daytona and Nelson Piquet Jr. at Road America. The closest he ever came to working a full season with one driver was in 2010, when he did 27 races with Reed Sorenson -- and five more with two other guys.

A crew chief learns a lot by keeping that many balls in the air. How to avoid complacency. How to keep an open mind. How to work with all different kinds of personalities -- or accents, in the cases of Miguel Paludo, Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Tagliani. Those experiences are paying off now that Owens has one single driver in his charge and can funnel all his focus and understanding toward one voice over the radio.

“I think it does make it easier,” he said. “When you have one driver for a long period of time, and that’s all you’ve ever had, you can probably become real complacent with a lot of things. Myself, having 20-something drivers, I see the different personalities, I see the different driving styles, I see the different trends of how they race. … I just go at it with an open mind. I think that helps.”

Owens isn’t sure if the pairing was intentional -- co-owners Steve Turner and Harry Scott Jr. set up the program -- but it certainly feels that way, given the juxtaposition of the crew chief’s wealth of experience at NASCAR’s national level, and the driver’s lack of it. No doubt, Larson can wheel it, but he also needs to grow familiar with event procedures, pit stops and the other small details that can lose a race. He needs someone to make use of the concise but accurate feedback he gives about the race car. And on the pit box, he has someone who once was a little bit like himself.

Not necessarily as a driver -- “guys like Larson made me quit,” said Owens, who made 12 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts with a best finish of 14th -- but as a rookie who could benefit from someone else’s experience. Owens was once a rookie crew chief, and he worked with drivers like Busch, Hamlin and Dave Blaney who helped accelerate his learning curve. With those guys, there was no guessing. They might not have been full-time in his vehicles, but their job was to jump behind the wheel and go.

“The biggest thing they bring over is, there’s no learning time with them,” Owens said. “They’re in the race car, and we’re dialing in the race car. There’s no learning the track, there’s no wait period. So from a rookie crew chief’s perspective, that’s good. We didn’t have both of us trying to learn. They were pretty much guiding me in what directions we needed to work toward. So I think that sped things up for me a lot.”

Now that situation has reversed itself, and it’s a crew chief helping to bring along a rookie driver adjusting to races that are longer and more involved than anything Larson experienced in the sprint car ranks. Of course, when it comes to what happens behind the wheel, Owens turns it over to his driver -- who relies on more than just abundant natural talent to get the job done.

“He does have an exceptional gift for driving the race vehicle,” Owens said. “… And he excels at that. Behind the scenes, I think he studies well. He does his part as a driver and researches and looks at these tracks, and does his simulation on the iRacing or whatever these kids do now. But I think he does a very, very good job of that, and I think that’s sometimes overlooked, the work he puts in personally to show up and do good. I think he’s just really focused. This is all he wants to do is race. He has a very strong passion for being the best and winning. That’s something you’re born with. That’s not something you’re taught.”

It’s in Owens’ blood, too. His father Randy, also Petty’s brother-in-law, was killed in a pit road accident at Talladega when Trent was only four months old. The Petty family, he said, essentially took in him and his brother after that. As a teenager, he was working summers in the family business, Petty Enterprises, and living in the big house in Level Cross, N.C. Being in that environment, it was impossible to not want to race.

“At 13, they provided me with a summer job at Petty Enterprises. We went through every department in the building, checking out what I might and might not like,” said Owens, who doesn’t advertise his connection to the King. “That education, you can’t even buy. I don’t play that up, because they’re just people. They’re just family. But there’s no doubt, they’re the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. That passion was built in me early.”

And it continues this weekend -- not just at Texas but at Rockingham Speedway, where Owens will also crew chief a Turner Scott entry for Larson in Sunday’s Truck Series event. The vehicle will feature an Autism Speaks paint scheme, and have the name of Owens’ 5-year-old son Gray -- who suffers from the condition -- over the right-side window opening. It will be another first for a crew chief who has seen it all before.

“That’s a real special deal,” Owens said. “I don’t even know how to thank them. … Just getting that awareness out there, and my team owners being willing to help in that, it’s pretty cool that they did that. It’s pretty rare to be a part of something like that. And then to be able to crew chief the vehicle -- I don’t even know what to say.”


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