There is no other position on a NASCAR Sprint Cup team that is more demanding and requires multiple talents than the crew chief.
Today he is a lot more than a master mechanic and pit strategist; he’s everything from a shop overseer to, in many cases, a human resources director.
In days past a crew chief was indeed a very important part of a team. But with organizations being so much smaller, and simpler, than they are today, his responsibilities weren’t nearly as numerous.
However, they were every bit as important. And the crew chiefs that performed them well have earned a place in NASCAR history.
There’s something else. You have heard it said many times that good chemistry between a crew chief and his driver builds success.
There are many crew chiefs who have jumped from team to team – or been asked outright to leave – because they cannot lock themselves into a productive relationship with the driver, or the team owner, for that matter.
You know full well that if a team falls into a slump the first guy to go is the crew chief.
In recent years a crew chief and his entire on-track personnel have been swapped for members of one of an organization’s other teams.
The crew chiefs’ role today is considered one of leadership. Even NASCAR recognizes that. It’s why whenever a team is penalized for an infraction, blame is placed upon the pit boss.
He gets fined, suspended, or both. He might not have known something was fishy, but that doesn’t mean anything to NASCAR.
NASCAR would tell him, “You are supposed to know everything that is going on. You have no excuse.”
And then the axe falls.
Although it is true that many crew chiefs seem to regularly shift to other teams, like Jake “Suitcase” Elder, the ones who can cultivate a lengthy and productive tenure with a single driver or team are the ones who earn stellar reputations.
Leonard Wood, the de facto crew chief of the Wood Brothers team – he also built engines and changed tires – was considered the driving force behind the team’s many wins.
This was said often during David Pearson’s highly successful stint with the Woods, which, among other things, included 11 wins in 18 races in 1973.
He didn’t get much attention – which is the way he wanted it – but the late Herb Nab was the crew chief for owner Junior Johnson and driver Cale Yarborough during the time they earned three consecutive championships, from 1976-1978.
Dale Inman, Richard Petty’s cousin, was Petty’s crew chief during all the glory years, and there were plenty of them.
Inman’s efforts earned him and Petty 198 victories and seven championships. And while some thought it was all because of family, it should be noted that Inman won another championship with Terry Labonte in 1984.
Wood and Inman are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Ray Evernham is now a member of the NMPA Hall of Fame and, in time, will also be a part of NASCAR’s hall.
In 1991, Evernham was paid by Ford to work on Bill Davis’ Nationwide Series team with driver Jeff Gordon. That came about because Gordon and Evernham hit it off so well – yet Davis didn’t want to hire Evernham.
In 1992 Evernham became Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. Over seven years they won 47 races and three championships.
I think Evernham was like the big brother Gordon never had. He could advise the young driver – and on things other than racing.
Example: After a victory, Gordon said over the radio: “I did it! I did it!”
Evernham calmly but emphatically responded, “No, Jeff. WE did it.”
Gordon played a big role in the hiring of driver Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports.
He encouraged owner Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson and even made appearances for Lowe’s – which Hendrick was courting as sponsor.
Since 2002 Johnson and Knaus have won 66 races. They reeled off a NASCAR record of five consecutive championships and earned their sixth title this year.
I would bet they can read each other’s minds.
Yes, Knaus has been snagged by NASCAR for violations. But then, so has every aforementioned crew chief. It’s the nature of the game.
Johnson is a certainty for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And, in one man’s opinion, so is Knaus.
There are several other examples of crew chief successes and longevity. I am sure you are well aware of that.
And it’s very likely we’ll see much more of this sort of thing in the future.
For example, the Jason Ratcliff-Matt Kenseth union produced seven victories and a runnerup finish in the championship in only their first season together.
There could be more success in the years ahead.
Others might come to the forefront. But it will happen only if the old adage – there must be good chemistry between crew chief and driver – remains true.
Which it will.