Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Zippy's gone, Mike Ford is gone too. Jason Ratcliff and Darian Grubb are the two new guys. So how does team leader Dave Rogers size up 2012?

 Crew chief Dave Rogers (R) and his tempestuous driver, Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Dave Rogers has to be one tough son of a gun.
   With a hide of steel.
   Because running Kyle Busch's Cup team has to be a pain in the butt at times.

   Like last fall at Texas, when Busch's Friday night temper-tantrum in a Truck race put him on the sidelines for Sunday's 500.
   Not quite the way to impress your crew.
   And you really have to wonder – marvel, even -- how does Rogers manage to keep his cool in this, one of the most demanding jobs in the sport?
   Kyle Busch may be the most talented driver in NASCAR, but his focus and judgment sometimes appears lacking.
   Again this season, much of the burden will lay with Rogers, his crew chief three years now.
   And the two are still trying to figure out how to play the playoffs.
   Too many times now Busch has rock-and-rolled through the regular season only to fall flat in the chase. The 2008 situation was telling. But the 2011 debacle, well, it has led to some serious soul-searching.
   Busch himself says he's refocusing. However can he really do that without losing that hard edge on the track? This sport sometimes demands the brutal touch with the wheel.



Jason Ratcliff, who will be running Joey Logano's Sprint Cup team. A long-time bud with Dave Rogers at Joe Gibbs'. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Another big question here: what the heck is going on in the Joe Gibbs camp?
   Last season Gibbs' three-car operation functioned as three decidedly separate teams: Joey Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, Denny Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, and Busch and Rogers.
   Logano is still young and learning, and struggling. Hamlin, for some strange reason, never really got going last season, after an amazing 2010.
  Fitting Logano back in the picture might be an issue, after that fitful 2011.
   But Rogers is confident: "Joey is a 'confidence' driver, you're right, and last year he lost his confidence. And his performance dwindled because of that.
   "If we provide him with some good race cars early in the season, and he can see we have his back through thick and thin, his confidence will build up and you'll see some good numbers out of him. Go back to 2010 and look at the late season – if they'd been in the chase, they would have been a factor.
   "Joey Logano can compete at this level. We just have to give him the right equipment to do it with…and support him when he does get down, and not let his confidence get as far down as it did in 2011."

   Now Zipadelli and Ford are both gone; two new crew chiefs, Jason Ratcliff and Darian Grubb, are running those teams. Ironically perhaps Zipadelli has gone to the Tony Stewart team that Grubb just left.

   The newcomer, Darian Grubb. Taking the helm of Denny Hamlin's team, after winning the NASCAR championship last season with Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Fitting Grubb into the rotation at Gibbs will be closely watched early in the year, particularly since Hamlin concedes he's a slow starter each year…and given last year's rash of engine issues.
   But then Grubb, Tony Stewart's man in the clutch the past three years, after several seasons with Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick, certainly brings some new ideas to the table here: "The sport has changed a lot over the past few years, and sometimes what's best for the driver isn't what's best for your finishing position on the track," Grubb says of his driver game plan. "Sometimes you just have to say 'This is what we're going to do,' even if it's not what the driver wants.
   "The fastest car doesn't always win, so you have to take those chances to try to win."
   And a willingness to tell your driver 'Just shut up and drive.'

    The Toyota engine program, divided for several years, with Gibbs running a separate shop from the Toyota TRD base in Los Angeles, is still something of a question too. The refrain is that the Toyota engine design is now older than the Ford, the Chevy and the Dodge, and that's been heard a lot in the off-season.

    Ah, what a card, this Joe Gibbs. Backed here by (L-R) Kyle Busch and wife Samantha, Jason Ratcliff and wife Christi, and J.D. Gibbs and wife Melissa, celebrating a Nationwide championship. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   A new Toyota engine design may be coming in 2013.
   But what's under the hood for 2012? And how will this newfangled electronic fuel injection stuff really work? (Teams are under orders not to criticize the new fuel injection project, for some reason, so outsiders may have to read between the lines….)
   All Toyota engines now will be coming from California. "Now we'll be eliminating some of that redundancy, and better use our resources, with Mark Cronquist (the veteran Gibbs' man) now working with TRD and flying out there every week," Rogers says.
   "We had our documented issues last year; we wish we didn't have the failures. But that's racing.
   "And you need to look  back at the big picture on engines – Toyota engines were designed before the gear (limiting) rule; they were designed to run high RPM (which the NASCAR gear rule changed dramatically).
   "When NASCAR came out with the gear rule, that outdated the Toyota motor.
   "The guys are working on some stuff to help us run in the 9200 RPM range that we all have to run now.
   "But we're not going to use that as an excuse. We'll take what we have to the track and try to win races with it."

   You think it's easy being a NASCAR driver? Try strutting around the stock car garage dressed up like this, as Jason Ratcliff (L) and Kyle Busch are, with contest winner Lennon Wynn (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Rogers, whose driver led a heck of a lot of laps last year, despite that 'old' engine, has other things to worry about. One – the two new crew chiefs. Two – helping Logano regain his confidence and become an integral part of this three-driver operation. And three – adjusting to life without Zipadelli, who has been an anchor at Gibbs for so many years.
   Rogers thus becomes the senior man in the game.
   Rogers says his years working with Ratcliffe on the Nationwide side will serve both teams well this season. Ironically Rogers then worked with Logano, while Ratcliff worked with Busch.
   "The chemistry between me and Jason is good," Rogers says. "He'll be able to read my book and I'll be able to read his. We've had such a strong relationship.
   "Darian is trying to be part of that.
   "So I think you'll see one unified team with three cars on Sunday."
   "That's what we're working on right now – we're three crew chiefs working on one team," Grubb says, "making sure the drivers are communicating and giving us the feedback we need.
   "Denny is giving me some really good feedback about what he wants us to work on early in the season. Looking at their debrief reports, Denny is very detailed. You can never have too much information."

   Does Grubb come into this deal with something to prove? Certainly the road he took to get to this point was unusual – he won five of last year's final 10 races, and the championship. And yet he had to move on.
   Throughout it all, Grubb has stayed classy and cool, and perhaps surprisingly calm. But then that is the line on Grubb, the approach he's shown throughout his career, diplomatic and deferential. In public at least. A very Rick Hendrick type of guy….

  Think Tony Stewart (R) might be kicking himself and second-guessing things if crew chief Darian Grubb (L) comes out of the box hot this season. These two won five of the last 10 races last season en route to the NASCAR championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   What did lead to the split of championship driver and championship crew chief, after all?
   Grubb defers to Stewart: "That wasn't my decision, and I'm not really sure what all went into that decision," Grubb says. "I just know where I am now, and I'm going forward.
   "Tony was both the driver and the owner, and he did a really good job of separating that, the race track and the shop. But then if Tony and I had differences we didn't have anybody above Tony to help us resolve that. But here we've got Joe and J.D. Gibbs, and if anything is going on, we're going to sit down and talk about it before it affects our performance. They take a very active role; and that's something I was used to when I was with Rick Hendrick."

   Zipadelli, now with Stewart, says the difference between the Gibbs operation and Stewart's operation is sizeable, literally. Gibbs has a huge technology plant, where Stewart's is much smaller.
   Will Grubb find himself on sensory overload?
   Rogers laughs: "Darian's too smart for that.
  "Zippy and I have talked a lot and chuckled about it -- There are some big differences. And no one program has all the right answers.
   "But with the unity among Jason, Darian and me, I think is going to help us overcome some of the problems we had. We're going to disproves some of those negatives….if the crew chiefs do a good job, preaching team work and leading by example.
   "And Kyle is going to make an effort to go out of his way to work with Denny. That's leadership too.
   "Our key is going to be racing to our potential. That means not running out of fuel like we did at Chicago.
   "Our cars are very fast. You look at the first 26 races last year, we led the most laps and had the most wins. Did a good job of racing to our potential.
   "But when we got into the chase, we fell on our face. We didn't do a good job. We tripped up early and didn't get it gathered back up. We showed some potential at Charlotte (midway in the chase), but it didn't last long."
   Maybe the Jimmie Johnson – Chad Knaus approach to racing works better. Johnson and Knaus appear to use the regular season to test things for the playoffs, and when the chase begins they're usually in top form.
   "Maybe those guys are smarter than me, because I don't know how to amp it up," Rogers says. "I go to every race to win. All 36.
   "We're going to put our best foot forward every week.
   "In the chase last year, well, we tripped up three or four races just before the chase, after we locked in. We lost momentum, lost our step. And that carried over to the chase.
   "Like Bristol – we dialed ourselves out.
   "But Kyle gets more mature and more dedicated every year. And he's made some personal decisions this year, to free up more time for our Cup operation, cutting back on his other racing. And he's hired good people to run his own race team, and that will give him more time for us. And be fresher.
   "Everyone is freeing up more time for Cup, and that's for a reason. Carl Edwards is backing off….Jimmie Johnson hasn't done it, Denny Hamlin hasn't done it. And those are the guys we have to race against."


But will crew chief Dave Rogers be smiling at the end of 2012 too? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com