Driving Today

The New Fall Guy Gets Clobbered

With the season about halfway, several teams are firing their crew chiefs.

There’s a new trend sweeping through NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series: If you don’t like the results, fire the crew chief.

It has become as rampant in NASCAR as the phenomenon of firing the manager of bad teams has been for decades in baseball. It might not be the crew chief’s fault that the driver and team aren’t performing as expected, but tossing the crew chief sends a strong message throughout a racing organization.

This past week was particularly tough on crew chiefs. Three of them were ash-canned by their teams, although one of the victims quickly found work replacing another.

Greg Erwin, who had been heading up Greg Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing effort, was bounced a little more than a week ago, but he quickly found work elsewhere. His salvation came when Richard Petty Motorsports fired Mike Shiplett, whom he replaced. So he dropped one set of headphones and picked up another in the short span of a few days. He will call the shots for the No. 43 car piloted by AJ Allmendinger, another underachieving unit this year.

What was the problem with the Shiplett-Allmendinger association? As with many crew chief-driver relationships (and marriages), it got down to communication. Allmendinger and Shiplett might well have seen eye to eye on most issues, but when push came to shove, the relationship wasn’t getting the results the team wanted. Thus, Shiplett got his walking papers.

In other crew chief-driver separations, it is often one call that sends things spiraling out of control.

Last year, Brian Pattie made a decision for his crew to change all four tires on Juan Pablo Montoya’s car, which happened to be leading the Brickyard 400, one of the most important races on the Sprint Cup schedule. The call was widely regarded as costing Montoya the victory when teammate Jamie McMurray, who had taken two tires, eventually won the race. Montoya crashed before the finish, but Pattie fell on his sword and attributed the debacle to his mistake in ordering a four-tire change.

The episode points out the sometimes-overlooked aspect of the phenomenon: Racing teams are far less likely to fire big-name drivers -- many of whom bring with them “personal sponsors” -- than they are to fire crew chiefs. That’s why they are the new fall guy.

 

 


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