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Why have so many star NASCAR crew chiefs just been axed?

   Greg Erwin and now former crew chief Greg Erwin. Chemistry? Or just bad gas mileage? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Greg Erwin, Todd Berrier, Brian Pattie, Mike Shiplett. All top-name, star crew chiefs getting the ax in the past two weeks.
   What's the deal here?
   Is there some big-picture dynamic at play?

   Are owners panicking?
   Are teams simply losing chemistry?
   Are drivers, after too many disappointing performances, just wanting a change-up?
   Whatever, in classic fashion, it's the crew chief getting the blame….and the ax.
   The boiling up of frustrations among some Sprint Cup teams recalls the showdown that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had a few years ago, leading to a headknocking session presided over by team owner Rick Hendrick, who resolved that battle.
   But team owners Richard Childress, Jack Roush and Chip Ganassi have just taken another, easier approach. The ax.
   Will it work? Probably not in time for any of these particularly drivers to make a run for the championship. Just making the chase playoffs could be an uphill battle.
   The scorecard: Erwin is no longer crew chief for Greg Biffle. Berrier is no longer crew chief for Jeff Burton. Pattie is no longer crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya. And Shiplett is no longer crew chief for AJ Allmendinger.

   Erwin, who turned an engineering job with Richard Childress into a top crew chief spot with Jack Roush and Biffle, was baby-sitting his new team car – for AJ Allmendinger – through NASCAR inspection here Friday morning, and mulling over the rapid series of mid-season shakeups.
   "Everybody just got frustrated," Erwin says of Roush's surprising decision to give Biffle a new crew chief, after four years, and move Erwin over to the Richard Petty side of the Ford camp, replacing Shiplett.
   "Just frustrated.
   "Greg was frustrated with the outcome of his races. I was frustrated with our lack of being able to capitalize on good opportunities.
   "A lot of 'em were gas mileage problems. I'll point specifically to Michigan (mid-June) where we led the most laps, but got caught on pit road (at a caution), because we had to pit for gas.
   "And we were leading with two to go at Charlotte (late May), and just a little big better gas mileage may win us that 600. That was a big one we felt slipped away.
   "Now I'm not the gas mileage guy….but Greg and Jack felt there were some decisions made during the course of several races that just didn't have the best outcome, so they decided to make a change.
   "And it's probably going to work out better for everybody."

   Jeff Burton: 25th in the standings, no player in the chase. Hence, a new crew chief (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  However Erwin isn't the only star NASCAR crew chief getting shuffled around. Is there a pattern here? Or just coincidence?
   "I wouldn't use the word 'star;' I'd use the word fortunate," Erwin says. "I was lucky enough to be part of this program for four years, and some wins, and good runs, and good finishes in points. But at the end of the day we know it's a driver's sport….and most of those guys make crew chiefs 'stars' because they're such good drivers.
  "And you're lucky enough to be affiliated with programs like that to get you that 'chase status' type guy."
   So now there are several 'unknowns' suddenly in charge of running major NASCAR operations: Luke Lambert, running Burton's team; Jim Pohlman, running Montoya's team; Matt Puccia, running Biffle's team. Going into Sunday's 400 Burton is 25th in the standings, Montoya 17th, Biffle 15th.
   Burton says his new crew chief "Just has to be himself. Luke is just 28 years old; he's got a lot to learn. But his personality is such that he's going to really use the people around him, to make himself better. He's very open-minded.
   "I just want Luke to be Luke. I don't want him to try to become Chad Knaus or somebody else.
   "We want to have success. But I believe that we will have success by Luke realizing the things he doesn't know, and taking advantage of the things he does know."

   Being a NASCAR crew chief these days is much like running a big high-tech business, managing dozens of people, dealing with mind-boggling amounts of data, all in season where money is an issue, with sponsorship, even for stars like Jeff Gordon, no longer taken for granted.
   Talking a number of crew chiefs here Friday, a big topic on their minds is 'where's the break, when's the vacation time?' Crew chiefs pretty much have to run seven days a week, and midway through the season it's easy to see many of them already have their tongues hanging out, and yet from this point they've got 17 straight weeks of racing without a break.
   Some car owners may simply be tired of listening to drivers complaining about the crew chief. Listening on radios it's easy to hear when a driver is not vey happy with what he's got.
   Mark Martin was not very pleased with Lance McGrew's call not to stop late for tires at Dover, even though the call nearly won the race. (McGrew is another star crew chief who is being replaced, at the end of the season, by Kenny Francis, coming over to work with Kasey Kahne.)
   And Montoya has not been happy with some similar calls by Pattie either.
   Drivers invariably want fresh tires at every opportunity, while crew chiefs have to cajole their man that track position is usually more important.
   "A crew chief
   "I'm sure Juan Pablo feels he's a better race driver than where he is in points….I'm sure Greg feels he's a better race driver than where he is in points too," Erwin says. "Jeff Burton too."
    So, is it the crew chief at fault in these situations, or perhaps the driver instead? But then owners rarely if ever fire a driver.
    Erwin says "We all know that going in.
   "The difference is the football coach gets the option of changing out his quarterback or his offensive coordinator….
   "But when you go into this job, you know that 'these' are the tools you have to work with, and there are some things you'll be able to change and something not.
   "I'm of course not saying that we would change Greg out, not by any means.  But the chemistry….well, it failed to progress after maybe year three.
   "Now Greg's team is battling to get into the chase, and he's arguable just one win away. Last week at Loudon could have been it; this week here could be it.
   "That team typically doesn't really get rolling, for whatever reason, until a couple weeks before the chase, every season. So they're not out of it by far.
   "And I'm just fortunate to wind up with a program that's right there too."
   In fact Allmendinger is right behind Biffle in the standings, by only eight points – essentially just eight finishing positions over the year's first 19 races.
   It will be interesting to see if Biffle or Allmendinger can make the playoffs.
   Biffle himself says "we needed a different approach. And I don't think changing the crew chief is going to fix why we've run out of gas so many times, and our fuel mileage. But it gives a fresh look at it: 'Okay, what can we do to fix our issues?'
   "We have been fast everywhere we've been. But how often do we finish where we've been running?
   "One, run the same amount of laps as the rest of the field on a fuel tank.
   "Two, get good pit stops....and pit strategy.
    "That's what we were missing. We had good, fast cars, and still do; we just needed to finish and close the deal."


   AJ Allmendinger: a new crew chief, Greg Erwin, coming on board, as the Dinger battles for a spot in the playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)






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