Ahead of this weekend’s 58th running of the Daytona 500, Lee Spencer reports on why 2016 is set to be a year of change for NASCAR, starting with the crew chiefs.
The evolution of NASCAR took another turn in the off-season. Before the Sprint Cup teams rolled into Daytona International Speedway to kick off the 2016 season, the shuffling of crew chiefs was all the buzz.
Then, after nearly a year-and-a-half of planning and cajoling, NASCAR finally came to terms with team owners on a Charter system that would assure 36 teams of a guaranteed starting position in all 34 races – and perhaps a bigger piece of the pie.
On the procedural side of the sport, NASCAR erased the notion of a green-white-checkered finish deciding the race and opted, instead, for a new “overtime” rule. If a caution occurs in the closing laps of a race, the field will line up for the green flag. Following a clean restart, if the leader reaches the overtime line (which will be located just past halfway on most tracks) without incident in the field, the race will be considered complete. Should an accident occur prior to the leader reaching the overtime line, the field will be reset until a clean restart can be achieved – only then can the race be deemed complete.
And when cars finally returned to the track last Sunday, it was a rookie driver who stole the lion’s share of headlines. Chase Elliott, 20, became the youngest ever competitor to win the Daytona 500 pole.
Elliott certainly has big driving shoes to fill after the freshman replaced four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who retired after last season. Yet, the young driver has shown early promise. Under the direction of veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson, Elliott continued the No. 24 Chevrolet’s streak as the fastest car in the field, taking pole with a lap of 196.314 mph.
While Gustafson has solidified his position at Hendrick Motorsports, many NASCAR crew chiefs learned last season that job security is far from guaranteed. Even crew chiefs that led teams into the Chase for the Sprint Cup found themselves looking for a new positions at the year’s end.
Here are 10 other new crew chief/driver combinations to watch in 2016:
1. Trevor Bayne/Matt Puccia
Since winning the 2011 Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start, Bayne has struggled to regain that same luster over the last five seasons. Last year, Roush Fenway Racing aligned Bayne with one of its top crew chiefs in veteran Bob Osborne. In his first full season on the Cup tour in the No. 6 Ford, Bayne finished 29th. Puccia takes over after four and a half years with veteran Greg Biffle. It’s likely RFR’s last attempt to convert Bayne into a Cup driver.
2. Danica Patrick/Billy Scott
The best way to characterize Patrick’s foray into NASCAR over the past three seasons has been inconsistent. In 118 starts, she’s produced just six top-10 finishes in top of the line equipment. Stewart-Haas Racing rang the changes and, in Scott, they have recruited a new crew chief with strong engineering skills. Scott, 38, joins SHR after eight seasons with MWR.
3. Denny Hamlin/Michael Wheeler
After a decade of offering his engineering prowess to the No. 11 team, Wheeler made the transition to crew chief. In his first official outing in his new role, Wheeler led Hamlin to his first win in the 2016 Sprint Unlimited. The man they call “Wheels” is Hamlin’s fourth crew chief in six years, though the Joe Gibbs Racing driver swears he’s the last.
4. Tony Stewart/Michael Bugarewicz
As a disciple of Rodney Childers, Bugarewicz – the former team engineer of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing squad turned crew chief – was tasked with overseeing Smoke’s final season in the Sprint Cup. While that would normally be enough of a challenge, with Stewart recovering on the sidelines following a sand racing accident, “Buga” must now acclimate to a variety of drivers before the three-time champion returns to action, starting with Brian Vickers.
5. Clint Bowyer/Steve Addington
Bowyer is in an awkward position as he enters a gap year between his old gig with Michael Waltrip Racing and taking over the No. 14 Chevy for Tony Stewart in 2017. Although his time with HScott Motorsports will be short-lived, Addington has spent the last two seasons with the organization. Addington, the former crew chief of the No. 14, benefits from a technical relationship with SHR.
6. Greg Biffle/Brian Pattie
As Greg Biffle’s career winds down, Roush Fenway Racing hoped to invigorate the No. 16 Ford team with a fresh perspective from a new crew chief. The company went outside the RFR walls and recruited veteran Brian Pattie from Michael Waltrip Racing. For the last 16 seasons, Pattie has overseen teams in NASCAR’s top three tours accumulating 15 victories along the way. Although Pattie is new to RFR, he and Biffle worked together earlier in their NASCAR careers.
7. Carl Edwards/Dave Rogers
Edwards enters his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing — and has his second crew chief since joining the organization. Rogers has been a utility player moving from Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin and now Edwards over the last three years. Edwards and Rogers took part in a team building exercise on snow mobiles in New England in the off-season.
8. Chris Buescher/Bob Osborne
Coming off of his XFINITY Series title, Buescher is taking baby steps as he acclimates to a full-time Sprint Cup ride in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford. Buescher was able to run six Cup races in 2015. The addition of veteran crew chief Bob Osborne and a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing should accelerate his learning curve.
9. Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston
Following Larson’s sophomore slump, Chip Ganassi Racing elected to go outside of the company and hired Chad Johnston from Stewart-Haas Racing. Johnston, who has worked in NASCAR since 2004, made tremendous gains with Martin Truex Jr. at MWR and hopes to have similar results with Larson.
10. Brian Scott/Chris Heroy
Both Scott and Heroy are new to Richard Petty Motorsports this season. For Scott, it’s his first full season in Cup after six season in the XFINITY Series and two in trucks. Heroy enjoyed marked success as Kyle Larson’s crew chief in his freshman season and led him to rookie-of-the-year honors in 2014.
While there’s been instant results with the Hamlin/Wheeler pairing. And Edwards and Larson, too, should come alive – particularly with NASCAR transitioning to a lower-downforce car in 2016. For the rest of the pack, however, it would be wise to expect the roughly same cast of characters up front this year. Take your pick from Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano or defending Cup champion Kyle Busch. As teams up and down the grid ring the changes, there’s no reason to believe that threesome won’t pick up where they left off in 2015.