Penske's Erwin just wants to win
Greg Erwin enjoys a good redemption tale as much as anyone. He enjoys the one he's part of this season. And the crew chief enjoys even more that his is dovetailing nicely with that of his driver, Sam Hornish Jr.
His is not an unordinary tale or unusual circumstance, he said. But with Hornish second in points after 10 Nationwide Series races, the comeback crew chief and comeback driver have extraordinary mutual goals: a first NASCAR championship for each.
"I think because it's you, you see it as a comeback," Erwin said. "You see it as your opportunity to make some good things happen and learn from your mistakes in the past. But if you take a step back and look at all the guys in the garage that have been up and down and in and out, the list is long.
"In this business, you are never on top very long. Everyone stubs their toes once in a while. You just hope you are around a group of people who can help you through it and understand."
Erwin says he has found that at Penske Racing. A Clemson University-trained engineer who worked his way from the data mine to the pit box, Erwin won five races over parts of five seasons with Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing, finishing third, seventh and sixth in points from 2008-10. But in the demanding and competitive internal environment that is RFR, an admittedly feeble commencement to the 2011 season led to his ouster.
Erwin now deems it his "escape."
"Did I say that?" he said with a grin. "'Release' maybe was a better word."
Either way, he said, his departure was no surprise as both productivity and working relations had eroded within the No. 16 Ford team. Concern over the machine, he said, had led him to not press for personnel changes that were made on the pit crew after his departure. Within that decay, he said, are lessons.
"I was wrung out and the relationship, Greg and I, when the times got tough, the relationship didn't flourish," said Erwin, who worked at Richard Petty Motorsports with AJ Allmendinger the second half of the 2011 season and the first nine races of 2012 before being replaced as Aric Almirola's crew chief. "The relationship was fine when times were good and we were running well and the crew was on their game and the pit crew was on their game. And we ran into 2011 thinking we had it all because we finished 2010 just about as strong as we could hope.
"And it was one thing after another for the first couple months of that season, some of which I had control of and some of which I didn't. But I take responsibility for it all. There were things that needed to change in that program, that looking back on it I was blind to and I won't be blind to it ever again."
After being named as Hornish's crew chief in November, Erwin immersed himself during the offseason in everything that had been tried -- successfully or not -- with Hornish in his previous seasons in stock cars. Engineer Brian Campe and Todd Gordon, who was crew chief when Hornish produced a top-5 and top-10 in Cup last season replacing Allmendinger during his drug suspension, were key resources, Erwin said.
"They would add 'This is what we did and what he generally responds well to' and 'This is something we did that didn't work out for him,'" Erwin said. "You take all that and you compile it and you look at the reports on the server and you try to relate it. I never Nationwide-raced, really, in my life, so you take all that, combine that with maybe what I thought about the old-style Cup car and sort of chart a path. We got off to a smoking fast start and just the incidents two of the last four weeks have put us back.
"Quite honestly, though, I see us being able to overcome that."
Hornish had a 28-point lead in the standings after winning and finishing second twice in the first five races, but a 34th at Texas, a 25th at Talladega and three comparatively underwhelming results allowed Regan Smith to overtake him.
Still, this has already been his most promising season in stock cars since the three-time IndyCar Series champion left open-wheel racing in 2008 for the other side of Roger Penske's massive race shop. After failing to establish himself in an immediate move from IndyCar to Sprint Cup, Hornish lost his ride with Penske after 2010 and ran a limited Nationwide program in 2011 because of sponsor shortfalls, picking up his first NASCAR win at Phoenix.
Given another chance as a full-time Nationwide competitor in 2012, he began to bloom, finishing fourth in driver points with crew chief Chad Walter. Now he appears ready for the next evolution with Erwin.
"There wasn't any question in either one of our minds that if we get the right tools or we get the opportunity that we could make it back," Hornish said. "I've had a lot of people give me a lot of praise over the last year and a half, especially over the last year, saying what I was capable of. But until you have that opportunity to prove them wrong, nobody has the validation or understands."
Hornish said that a change in crew chiefs after having what was then his best season in stock cars was not disconcerting. Though "I like Chad Walter a lot," he said, both he and management agreed a change was needed to push his program from competitive to championship-caliber.
"What separates good crew chiefs from great ones is what's going to happen in the race and giving yourself a chance to win," Hornish said, "whether it's taking two tires or four tires or to pit early or to stay out. All that stuff, all that feel, what the track is going to do, that's what Greg was brought in for. It wasn't because we had horrible cars and couldn't figure out how to run fast. I was running in the top five and had opportunity to win races."
Erwin knows Hornish's goal is a full-time return to Sprint Cup. He seems to share the ambition but is repressing it for now. Winning a title could give them both what they want.
"For Sam, absolutely. I know he absolutely wants to be there," Erwin said of Sprint Cup. "I came into this thinking that's where I needed to be in order to prove something to somebody, myself or other drivers or my competitors or the guys in the garage area. But right now, I want to win races.
"I knew this was my best opportunity to win races, right here on this 12 program right now. I would love to win a Nationwide championship, and at that point when they look forward and decide if we can go Cup racing with a third team or what have you, it would be great to go. Right now, I'm having fun doing what I'm doing."