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Swapping crew chiefs? Nothing new in NASCAR, but will it work for Red Bull?

  Jimmy Elledge: now crew chief for Casey Mears, with Brian Vickers' team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.
    What's up next for Team Red Bull, the American dept.?
   Over in Formula 1 the RB teams are winning and feuding....and over here, it's, well, what?
   Brian Vickers, off to a good start, was suddenly sidelined for the season three weeks ago, with Casey Mears subbing in his ride.
   Teammate Scott Speed, from F1 (the first American there since Michael Andretti in 1993) and now in his third year in NASCAR, hasn't really hit it off even yet, though to be fair he's only run 53 Cup events so far. His best finish is a fifth at Talladega a year ago.
    Now Jay Frye, the team GM, is swapping crew chiefs, putting Jimmy Elledge with Mears and moving Ryan Pemberton to Speed's team. So it's a new crew for each crew chief.
    But Frye is also letting the two crew chiefs bring over five of their men, including their engineers.
    Why the change? To 'experiment with different personnel combinations," Frye says.
    And Frye pointed out that Mears and Elledge worked together a few years ago when both were at Chip Ganassi's.
    Another key reason: to improve performance.
    Mears finished 22nd in his debut at Dover, and conceded he still wasn't up to speed with the cars, barely 48 hours after the call. But Speed himself was only 23rd.
     Speed finished 14th in the Charlotte Showdown and didn't make the All-Star race; Mears did get the okay to run in the All-Star but only finished 16th.
     In the 600 Mears finished 29th; Speed 30th.
    Speed's best finish this season was a 10th at Atlanta, his only top-10.
    That's all in stark contrast to what Vickers was doing: Yes, Vickers' 11 races with Pemberton were a roller-coaster, with downers at Las Vegas, Phoenix, Texas and Talladega. But he had pulled into 12th in the standings with his sixth at Martinsville, before that slump, and he was just finished 10th at Darlington when the issue of blood clots hit him.
    So now the team has no chance to make the playoffs, yet it's just June.

   Jay Frye: as general manager, the buck stops here. And he's not giving up on 2010. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    'Wait till next year' may have just begun.
    "Performance," Frye says. "We need to get some great momentum to finish this year up and going into next season. We think both Casey and Scott can have some success....we just need to get going.
    "We think Ryan can help Scott go to the next level.
    "We probably wouldn't have made this decision if Brian were still in the car. But this gives us the opportunity to look at some things.
     "In our sport the driver-crew chief dynamic is very unique. That's what we're looking at. Hopefully this works.
    "Obviously it's an experiment that is on-going. And we certainly want it to succeed. We're very optimistic this will work."

    The Vickers' medical update: "Brian's main goal now is to get well," Frye says. "Right now he's got to pace himself, he has to take it easy...
   "He's coming in here Sunday. But when he's around he's a big help to the team, helping translate our terminology to Casey."
    The swap, Mears says, "does make some sense if you look at it from Jimmy and I having already worked together," Mears says.
    "It will be strictly what can we do to get this car to go faster -- instead of trying to learn how to work with each other.
    "It does cut out a lot of the middle stuff that you have to go through with a new driver-crew chief relationship, weed out a lot of those unknowns from the start."
   "The crew chief and team member swap will be good for all of us," Speed says. "We started the year strong (with good runs at Daytona, California, Vegas and Atlanta), but hit a patch of bad luck, for whatever reason.
    "We've had some success, and we're having a hard time finding it again. Maybe this is the key.
     "It's created a lot of new energy and drive. I think the change will be a fresh start for all of us."


 Ryan Pemberton: now running Scott Speed's half of Jay Frye's operation (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    So how does Frye judge Mears so far?
   "We've had one race where we ran competitively, and one not so competitively," Frye said. "But Jimmy and Casey have worked together before, and if you look at Casey's stats, his best runs were when Jimmy was his crew chief.
   "We've got a new element to our team and we've got to get that element comfortable with our team, and we think Jimmy will help that. There should be some instant results. The key to this is Jimmy and Casey.
   "We have to perform now. It's not that we've written off the season."
    And how was the team itself doing when Vickers was at the wheel?
   "Before Phoenix we were 12th in the points and getting back on track. Then we had three bad weeks in a row – two flat tires and a wreck – and went to Richmond 24th in points.
   "Then at Richmond and Darlington the team was starting to come back....and then Brian got ill.
   "A lot of things have happened to that team over the season.
    "Anytime you go through a stressful time like we are, you worry that the two teams will start doing things differently and get apart. So that's one reason we did what we did, to try to have a two-car team that works like one."
    Another angle: Speed's contract is up for renewal this season, and it's unclear how much progress he's really been making.
    "Jimmy's done a great job the last year and a half getting Scott to where he's at....but it's been a difficult year and a half, and maybe now 'new blood' will help.
    "Putting Scott and Ryan together....we saw the effects of this change in the shop immediately. Some people were upset or mad, some people were happy.
    "It shakes things up. Makes everybody work a little harder, and pay a little more attention.
   "Now it gives each crew chief a chance to evaluate the other team. We're really evaluating the whole company by doing this."


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