Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Stability in NASCAR Driver Seats; but Which Crew Chief Leaves Next?

Did You Notice? That despite the Sprint Cup crew chief carousel as of late, not a single driver replacement this season has happened within the fully-funded, full-time operations? The closest we’ve seen to a switch has happened at the No. 09/51 team, where Phoenix Racing dumped former Cup champ Bill Elliott early in the year for Landon Cassill.

Front Row Motorsports has also subbed out for Travis Kvapil, but considering the driver had another ride – running full time in the Truck Series for Randy Moss Motorsports – it’s not like they were kicking him to the curb. And FAS Lane, for what little money they have doesn’t count; a driver merry-go-round depends as much on specific sponsor funding as it does performance.

So why do we have uncanny stability in the driver ranks, despite several lame-duck scenarios and organizations struggling to the point changes are needed? It’s as simple as the current job outlook in this economy; when there are no other opportunities out there, you’re less likely to leave the paycheck you have, right? From a driver’s perspective, in this market so many people feel lucky to simply have a ride they’re not as pushy to either opt out of a contract or ask for an early release.

Money is money, after all, and even in a case like Mark Martin’s – where Kenny Francis’s official promotion to crew chief of the No. 5 next year makes much of his program, including the driver himself a lame duck – there’s little if any choice but to sit back, collect some cash and wait for 2012.

From a sponsor’s perspective, too, there’s now plenty of ties to a driver to the point that when change is needed, it’s the head wrench and not the man behind the wheel who gets the axe (see: the last two weeks). In David Ragan’s case, for example, back when he was struggling any change behind the wheel would have triggered an opt-out clause for UPS on the No. 6 car. That, if true probably bought him more time than anything else; because why would you open the door, giving the sponsor an option to leave when all around you companies are cost-cutting or leaving the sport in droves?

Certainly, even if Carl Edwards signs elsewhere it’s unlikely we’ll see this number change before the end of the season; even struggling drivers, like Jeff Burton recently signed contract extensions to lock down their current situations. It’s a lack of stability proving the opposite of the free agent frenzy over in the NFL right now – that type of change and competition keeps fans connected to the sport even during off weeks and lulls in the schedule.

But right now, NASCAR’s the opposite. Finding positive, groundbreaking news on any given week, due in part to such stability is like trying to get LeBron to say sorry to Cleveland – just not gonna happen. Not exactly the best way to really regain its stature within the public consciousness…

Did You Notice? With crew chiefs packing their bags everywhere, here’s three more head wrenches I expect to be calling the shots elsewhere come 2012.

Greg Zipadelli – The good soldier at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s put up a valiant effort with young Joey Logano but only experienced limited success. And with Darian Grubb struggling with Tony Stewart, don’t you get the feeling those two are tailor made for each other? If Edwards comes on board at Gibbs, I can’t imagine this duo working together, either.

Kevin “Bono” Manion – The great chemistry with Jamie McMurray has fizzled along with the car’s handling; it’s been a nightmare season for last year’s three-win Cinderella story. With only two top-10 finishes and the No. 1 car far outside Chase contention, it’s a wonder he wasn’t replaced last week along with Brian Pattie, whose pink slip was dealt over at teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 42.

Ryan Pemberton – This one’s a bit of a surprise, for sure, but Pemberton, Brian Vickers‘s crew chief is currently facing the demise of Red Bull Racing after the season. As the chips crumble around him, some struggling team will come calling. Of course, if Martin works out a deal and RBR stays intact for 2012, all bets are off.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off.

  • There’s so much talk this week about the invocation to Nashville nobody ever actually focused on the race. I’m all for the pastor’s speech, for sure, but if I’m a competitor it’s got to be a little disconcerting people have no idea what happened to you or your car last Saturday night.
  • Looking for a sure bet at Indy? Chances are your winner comes from the Bowtie Brigade. Chevys have won every NASCAR race at the track since 2003, 12 of 17 overall and employ a “heating up” Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, all former winners. Of the three, it’s Stewart that needs the victory most of all; his Chase hopes depend on it. So don’t be surprised if that’s the top Chevy this coming week.
  • Everyone gets on the Cup guys for invading the Nationwide Series. But did you know Cup regulars (plus semi-retired Michael Waltrip) have won eight of the 12 Camping World Truck Races to date? That’s up 60% year-to-year, what we like to call in the racing world “a disturbing trend.”
  • Scott Speed will quietly show us what he’s made of as a Cup driver this weekend. Qualifying the Max Q No. 37 car, underfunded all season long would be a huge accomplishment after being out from behind the wheel for eight months.
  • With Kenny Francis coming over as crew chief for the No. 5 car, don’t forget the role Rick Hendrick has in mind for current head wrench Lance McGrew: leading R&D for the 2013 version of NASCAR’s new car. That’s how this team doesn’t skip a beat… by planning months, or in this case even years ahead.
  • So NASCAR stripped away Ryan Newman’s win for rules violations? I just hope they’re ready to do that the next time a Sprint Cup driver does that same thing.

About the author

Tom Bowles
 | Website

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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