The driver-crew chief relationship in NASCAR has changed greatly over the past five-plus decades.
What hasn’t changed is its importance.
Many talented drivers have flourished with one crew chief and struggled with another. The reason often cited is “chemistry.”
So how do you find that chemistry? Perhaps by asking a simple question: Who do drivers relate to best?
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The best answer might be other drivers.
Two recent Sprint Cup Series champions – Kevin Harvick (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012) – had crew chiefs, Rodney Childers and Paul Wolfe respectively, who were drivers before moving atop the pit box.
Harvick starts eighth and Keselowski sixth in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Is it a NASCAR trend?
“I don’t know if I can ring the bell yet to say this is a trend because there are a lot of crew chiefs who did not drive that are having a lot of success,” said Fox TV analyst and former crew chief, Larry McReynolds. “But having driven before has to help a crew chief when it comes to the driver.
“Back in my crew chief days, having been a driver is the one thing I always wished I’d had some experience with because it helps you relate more to what the driver is telling you about the car.”
Former Cup champion and Fox TV analyst Darrell Waltrip agreed.
“The crew chief can relate when the driver relays information about what the car is doing, and might not view that feedback as mere whining if he knows what it feels like to drive at 180 miles per hour,” Waltrip said.
A ‘driver’s mentality’
Growing up, Childers amassed an impressive resume as a driver, winning seven karting championships in South Carolina and five championships at the national level before moving to late model competition in 1997.
Between 1999 and 2002, he made numerous starts in the NASCAR Southeast Series, Hooters Pro Cup and one start in what is now the Xfinity Series.
Consistent success on the track was elusive, which led to an important revelation.
“I think it was a case of finally growing up,” he said. “I lived at home with my mom and dad and had a girlfriend and started thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life and what I needed to do to get myself in position to get married and have kids one day.”
He had always worked on his own cars and had worked as a crew chief for several other competitors while racing himself. He began searching for work in NASCAR as a mechanic and got his first job with Penske-Jasper Racing.
In June 2005, he got tapped for his first job as a crew chief, taking over for driver Scott Riggs’s team at MB2/MBV Motorsports. He earned his first Cup series victory with driver David Reutimann at Michael Waltrip Racing in the 2009 Coca-Cola 600.
After leading Brian Vickers to a Cup win in 2013, Childers left MWR to lead a new team in 2014 at Stewart-Haas Racing with Harvick, who was starting anew himself after spending virtually his entire NASCAR career at Richard Childress Racing.
The two hit it off right away.
“Rodney can build it, drive it and engineer it and I think that keeps each department at the shop honest,” Harvick said. “A lot of crew chiefs now have to rely on the race engineers and what they say when it comes to running simulation programs. A lot of mistakes can fall through the cracks.”
The practical experience of driving doesn’t necessarily play that large a role, Harvick said, what’s more important is that Childers has “a driver’s mentality.”
“It’s like when you go from the All-Star Race and come back the next week for the 600, you know the track is going to be slower, it’s going to be slicker,” Harvick said.
“You know when you take the green flag, you remember as a driver the car is always going to be looser than it was in practice and you need to adjust for that.”
Another example: During most of Harvick’s practices, Childers elects to spend most of the time watching the video from the roof camera atop Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet. In other words, he gets the driver’s view.
In some respects, Childers believes he has come full circle.
“When I was driving, I always believed one of the reasons I won races was because I was better at working on my cars,” he said. “I never thought I was a better driver than anybody else, I just worked hard at what I did.”
‘Best of both worlds’
Probably not surprisingly, Wolfe’s path is similar to Childers’ – in fact, the two crossed paths on occasion as drivers.
Also like Childers, Wolfe worked extensively on the cars he drove growing up. He ventured a little further in his NASCAR driving career than Childers, making 16 starts between 2003 and 2005 in what is now the Xfinity Series.
Wolfe enjoyed more success in what is now the K&N Pro Series East, where he made 40 starts, won two poles and had nine top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.
Again, though, the lack of consistent on-track success sent Wolfe headed in a different direction.
“It was really a lack of funding that was the biggest problem,” he said. “What probably made my final decision – I still enjoyed driving at the time – I was not going to be able to continue in a competitive car and that, ultimately, was important to me.”
Building and setting up race cars had by then become second nature, so becoming a crew chief was a logical transition for Wolfe.
He took on his first crew chief position with FitzBradshaw Racing, working on its team in what was then the Busch East Series. Eventually he ended up at Team Penske, where he won the Xfinity Series championship as Keselowski’s crew chief in 2010.
Wolfe replaced Jay Guy as Keselowski’s crew chief in the Cup series the next season and since then the pair has won 16 races and the 2012 series championship.
“I think understanding different feels and how the car changes, those things I think almost sped up my learning curve as a crew chief with Brad,” Wolfe said. “That communication with a driver, his feedback and how to break it down was pretty easy for me because I had experienced it myself.”
Keselowski calls Wolfe’s driving career “a tremendous asset” and said his driving experience combined with his engineering knowledge allows Keselowski to gain “the best of both worlds.”
“I feel like the great crew chiefs that were former drivers fit a very specific mold – most of them have a lot of experience working on their own cars,” he said. “All of them seem to have a story that but for circumstances, they would still be driving.
“But they still had a passion for racing and didn’t want to leave the sport. It’s that passion that fuels them to be driven with a very unique background.”
More on the way
There appears to be a slowly growing list of drivers-turned-crew chiefs throughout NASCAR’s ranks.
The latest addition in the Cup series is Matt McCall, who made more than a half-dozen NASCAR starts between 2003 and 2013, and was named Jamie McMurray’s crew chief at the start of the 2015 season.
In the Xfinity Series, Ernie Cope, who made more than two dozen NASCAR starts in the 1990s, serves as a crew chief at JR Motorsports for driver Chase Elliott, who won the series championship last season.
In the Truck series, Jeff Hensley, who made 90 NASCAR starts in the mid-1980s, currently serves as crew chief for driver Cameron Hayley at ThorSport Racing.
Of the three, Harvick believes McCall may be the next star in the making.
“Matt is probably the next Rodney Childers or Paul Wolfe. He’s the next guy that’s going to be a great crew chief,” he said. “He’s going to have all the areas covered – he can drive it, build it, engineer it.
“That’s the new wave of the great crew chief, in my opinion.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter