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Friday, July 22, 2011
Crew chief shake-up for Indy

By Johnny Benson
ESPN.com

Call it desperation. Call it strategy. Call it the crew-chief shuffle. Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya will all have new management for the Brickyard 400. I personally think all three of these drivers need two wins to have a shot at making the Chase. In other words, the late-season crew-chief shakeup is an attempt at a NASCAR Hail Mary.

Will it work? It's something that's very hard to accomplish for most people in an entire season, let alone a short period of time. But let's start with Biffle parting ways with Greg Erwin.

This came as a surprise to me because Erwin has helped Biffle get into the Chase three times. He's tied for 14th place, which isn't exactly a bad season. But there's so much pressure to make that Chase cutoff, and crew chiefs are far more expendable than drivers. They don't have sponsors or fans strongly tied to their brand.

Brian Pattie
Juan Pablo Montoya and former crew chief Brian Pattie didn't always see eye to eye.

That said, I think Matt Puccia will be challenged in taking Erwin's place now that Erwin is leading Allmendinger's crew and not around to help with the transition. There is a learning curve for the driver, crew chief and crew, and they have to go make some huge changes. It's going to be different going to the track and having a different voice on the radio, having somebody give completely different ideas.

The benefit for Biffle right now is that he has two teammates in the Chase in Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. Maybe with a new crew chief he can feed off them for points, but I think that's his only hope right now. For the No. 16 team, making the Chase is a lofty task.

On the flipside of that deal, Erwin is going to bring Allmendinger a tremendous amount of experience. I don't know if it's going to be a big enough help to get him into the Chase, but it'll be more than enough to make him competitive next season. Allmendinger is currently sitting just eight points back of Biffle, 129 out of the Chase.

But immediate success after changes like these, whether in Allmendinger's camp or elsewhere, shouldn't be viewed as a direct reflection of the replacement crew chief. Teams prepare so far ahead of races that the executed plan usually belongs to the old crew chief. Or, as I believe the case will be with Brian Pattie and Montoya, the former chief is still on the staff, just in a different capacity.

This is the one change that didn't surprise me that much because even though Pattie is an extremely smart crew chief, it's not new for him and 17th-ranked Montoya to not get along. I've got a lot of respect for Pattie, and for him to have tension with someone may reflect more on the other person than him. But hey, Jim Pohlman will be in charge this weekend, and Pattie has said that he'll help get him up to speed -- a great advantage with so few races left before the Chase. And one that Biffle's team doesn't have.

It's very hard to tell how these moves will play out in a one- or two-race scenario. With the amount of practice that's available, all the preparation coming out of the shop is key. Sometimes changing a couple of guys on the crew may be just enough to help. Other times, changing crew chiefs is the only way to send a message. But I still think it's a desperate move at this time of year. The new Chase format and the push to get a win has put crew chiefs on the edge more than ever.


Johnny Benson is a former NASCAR Nationwide and Truck Series champ who serves as an analyst on ESPN's NASCAR Now and mentor to numerous drivers.