Whittling crew chiefs down to top 10
With some help from two true experts, I'm going to tell you who are the best of the best at the hardest job in NASCAR.
No, it isn't the drivers, although that occupation is tough enough. I'm talking about crew chiefs. Pass the antacids and take your chances.
An NFL or NBA head coach, an MLB manager, a thoroughbred trainer, you name it. No job in sports requires more split-second decisions under more pressure in more adverse conditions than a crew chief at NASCAR's highest level.
The man calling the shots on the pit box in Sprint Cup has the ultimate hot seat in professional competition. Things often are happening at close to 200 mph with danger around every turn and every pit stop. The tiniest mistake, or the wrong call at a key moment, can cost your team a victory.
You have to try to control a driver in a sometimes uncontrollable piece of machinery. You try to make the right adjustments to that machine knowing it affects thousands of moving parts. And you have to keep an over-the-wall pit crew working at fast and in perfect harmony.
It takes a special individual to make all of that work well on a consistent basis. So here's my list of the top 10 crew chiefs in NASCAR.
Some of these names will surprise you. A couple may shock you.
This list isn't about who wins the most or who has the best driver. It's about the guys who do the most with what they have; the men who make their team better than it would be without them.
My ESPN colleagues Andy Petree and Tim Brewer -- two guys who know a thing or two about crew chiefing -- helped me put together this list. Petree won two Cup titles with Dale Earnhardt (1993-94). Brewer also won two Cup crowns (1978 with Cale Yarborough and 1981 with Darrell Waltrip).
I can't thank them enough for their input and their candid comments. But this is my list, based in part on their opinions. So don't blame them if your favorite crew chief didn't make the cut.
Before we get to the rankings, counting down to the No. 1 spot, how about a few honorable mentions -- Jimmy Fennig, Richard "Slugger" Labbe, Rodney Childers and Mike Ford.
Labbe, known as a bit of a drill sergeant, is doing a good job with Paul Menard and helped him win the Brickyard 400 last year.
"He is one of those guys who will figure out a way to be successful and he doesn't mind stepping on a few toes to get there," Petree said of Labbe. "That's not going to work with a lot of drivers and crews these days, but it works with the team he has now. Slugger commands respect."
Childers deserves some respect this year with an unenviable task. It's hard enough to be a crew chief for one driver. Childers is doing it for three. The No. 55 Toyota has shared driving duties with Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and team owner Michael Waltrip. But the car is ninth in points, thanks to Childers' guidance.
"I think he's doing a fabulous job," Brewer said of Childers. "He has driven a race car himself, so he knows what guys are looking for and that gives him an advantage."
Petree feels a little differently: "There are some races they should have won but they didn't."
Ford is back on the pit box after he parted ways with Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of 2011. He helped make Denny Hamlin one of the top drivers in the sport. But Ford has a tough test now as the new crew chief for Aric Almirola while trying to make Richard Petty Motorsports more competitive.
OK, so much for the preliminaries. Now for the 10 top men:
10. Dave Rogers: The man deserves hazard pay after last season. He helped guide Kyle Busch to the Chase in Rogers' first two seasons as the crew chief for the No. 18 Toyota.
But last year ended in a nightmarish situation. Busch was parked for the Texas Chase race after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. two days earlier in a Camping World Truck Series event.
"They're up and down, but I really can't blame any crew chief working with the Busch boys," Petree said. "I remember last year when things got out of control. Dave came on the [team] radio and said [to Busch], 'You are giving away everything we've worked for.'
"That showed me a lot. Dave has a tiger by the tail and he's just trying to hang on."
Brewer agrees that leading a Busch driver is a tough assignment, but he also believes Kyle has unmatched talent. He points to the amazing save Busch made of his sideways car before winning the Bud Shootout this year at Daytona.
"If I were starting a team today, the man that would be in the driver's seat for me is Kyle," Brewer said. "I told him I've been coming to Daytona since 1967, but that save he made there this year was the most incredible thing I've even seen a driver do."
So Rogers has the right driver to win a title if he can keep him in line.
9. Kenny Francis: He has guided two drivers to Chase seasons (Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne) and helped Kahne earn 11 victories with less-than top equipment. But he still is waiting to win with the best equipment -- a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet with Kahne this season.
"I'm really high on Kenny," Petree said "He's so smart, but Kasey was pushing too hard at the start of the season and didn't handle things well in the switch to Hendrick. He's settling down a little bit now.
"Kenny is one of the hardest-working guys out there. He's a great engineer, but he also has that intangible thing of going by the seat of his pants and making good adjustments on the run."
8. Bob Osborne: Except for a brief separation in 2006, Osborne always has been the man on the pit box for Carl Edwards, coming one point short of the Cup title last year.
Osborne is a brilliant guy, but not exactly the life of the party, so to speak. When I called him a brainiac, Petree said: "That's a very good description. Bob is a very smart guy, one of the smartest guys out there. He a very nuts-and-bolts guy. He's very analytical. But I think sometimes it would serve him better to be more seat-of-the-pants."
Brewer agrees: "Bob has a lot of knowledge, but I sometimes wonder if he should be a little more laid back, just a little bit looser so he could respond better and be a little more effective."
Petree felt Osborne could have handled things better when Edwards was penalized for jumping the restart two weeks ago at Richmond.
"I've been a big fan of Bob's, but some things have happened to them a few times that shouldn't have happened," Petree said. "He should have known the situation [at Richmond] and they could have salvaged that whole night. They had followed Tony [Stewart] for two caution laps. When the spotter said Carl was the leader, Bob should have said, 'No he's not. Don't go till [Tony] goes.' That's what I would have done."
But Petree also acknowledges it's easy to say after the fact: "I know how hard those things are to execute in the race."
7. Matt Puccia: In his first full season as Greg Biffle's crew chief, Puccia has Biff leading the standings. And Biffle can't say enough good things about him.
Brewer feels the same way. He worked with Puccia when Brewer headed research and development for the Ultra Motorsports truck team 13 years ago. Puccia was 22 at the time.
"I helped raise that kid when he was a fabricator," Brewer said. "Matt and I worked many hours together on many projects. He's a very talented young man with a lot of new ideas.
"And it says a lot that he has the trust of one of the best wheelmen in the business. Greg is a lot like Cale Yarborough to me in that he's aggressive all the time. They leave nothing on the table, but it takes a special crew chief to handle that."
Both Brewer and Petree still want to see how Puccia performs down the stretch.
"Greg and Matt are on the same page right now and they are riding free at the moment," Brewer said. "But let's see what happens when the going gets tough. That's when you see the cream rise to the top."
Petree has similar concerns: "Greg has gone through a lot of crew chiefs, so Matt is doing OK. They are leading the points, but my mind won't be totally made up until I see him in the Chase when push comes to shove. Matt's top-10, but I'm not ready to put him in the top five just yet."
6. Steve Letarte: It's never easy being the crew chief for the most popular man in NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Expectations always are sky high for the son of a legend, and Letarte still hasn't led Junior to a victory.
But the last two years under Letarte have been a renaissance for Earnhardt. He made the Chase last year and finished seventh overall, and he's third in the standings in 2012.
Letarte, who turns 33 on Monday, has done what many people thought couldn't be done in making Earnhardt happy and jovial again about his racing career.
"Steve is a great communicator and he really believes in Junior's ability and talent," Petree said. "Junior is one of those drivers who needs reassurance and constant support.
"His dad was just the opposite. He knew how good he was. He did his job and he expected you to do yours and that was it. And that worked for both of us. But Junior needs the positive reinforcement that Steve has given him. I was high on Steve when he was with Jeff Gordon and I still am."
But this is one guy about whom Brewer and Petree don't see eye to eye.
"To be perfectly honest, I don't think [Letarte] got the job done with Gordon, who still is a phenomenal talent," Brewer said. "I just expect better results with what he's had to work with. He should have won more races and a championship. But I know Steve's done a good job with Junior. I just expected more success."
5. Steve Addington: No crew chief is NASCAR paid his dues more than Addington, who was the whipping boy for both Busch brothers -- first with Kyle for two years and then with Kurt in 2010 and 2011. Addington, 46, spent 15 year in the Nationwide Series before getting his shot in Cup.
Now he's with the defending Cup champ in Stewart, so talk about pressure. It doesn't get tougher than taking over for the crew chief (Darian Grubb) who led his driver to a record run in the Chase.
"I'm telling you, the skin on [Addington] has to be a quarter-inch thick," Petree said. "He is the toughest crew chief out there after having to work with both Busch brothers. I couldn't have done it. That definitely showed his character."
As Brewer said earlier, he loves Kyle's talent, but Brewer thinks Addington must be the most patient man in NASCAR.
"If I had to do what he did in working with both Busch boys, I would be in the penitentiary," Brewer said. "I would have probably killed one of them at some point."
4. Alan Gustafson: He helped Jeff Gordon end his 66-race losing streak last year while leading him to three victories and a Chase spot. He also led Mark Martin to a runner-up finish in the 2009 standings and helped Kyle Busch make the Chase in 2006 and '07.
But everything that could go wrong has gone wrong this season for Gustafson and Gordon, who ranks 23rd in the standings with only two top-10s.
"Don't let that fool you," Petree said. "Alan knows his stuff, but they've had terrible luck this year."
Brewer said Gustafson's best days are ahead. "He has a unique coolness about him and he's very knowledgeable."
3. Darian Grubb: It's not often that you help a guy win a championship and then get shown the door, but that was Grubb's fate at the end of 2011.
Stewart already made the decision to end their relationship before the Chase started and the No. 14 team caught lightning in a bottle with five Chase wins.
Joe Gibbs Racing jumped at the chance to hire Grubb as Ford's replacement with the No. 11 Toyota team and Hamlin. Grubb already has led Hamlin to two victories in their first 10 races together.
2. Chad Knaus: Love him or hate him, Knaus was in a league of his own for years while leading Jimmie Johnson to an unprecedented five consecutive championships.
His fans believe he has the most innovative mind in the sport. His critics call him "Chad the Cheater" for his numerous times in the NASCAR penalty box after inspectors found rules violations on the No. 48 Chevy.
Either way you look at it, Knaus is the best at pushing the envelope to make the car go fast. But for now, the reign at the top has ended for Knaus and Johnson.
"Obviously, Chad has been there, done that," Brewer said. "But he's a little out of his comfort zone right now. He's getting his tail whipped and he has to adapt to it. He's working through that scenario."
1. Paul Wolfe: The average NASCAR fan wouldn't know Paul Wolfe from Beowulf. That will change.
If you take everything into consideration -- manufacturer, equipment, team personnel, pit crew and a talented, but young driver (Brad Keselowski), no crew chief has done more the last two seasons than Wolfe.
Wolfe and Keselowski had enormous success together in the Nationwide Series, winning six races in 2010 en route to the title.
But that was playing the bully in Triple-A. No one knew if Wolfe could make it happen at the Cup level for Keselowski, who had no top-5s and only two top-10s as a rookie in 2010 under crew chief Jay Guy.
Everything changed under Wolfe, a 35-year-old former driver who found his niche on the pit box. Keselowski won three races last season and finished fifth in the Chase. He has two victories this season, including the win at Talladega last weekend.
"He has taken Brad to the next level," Brewer said. "Paul also has the ability to get his guys to rally around Brad and support everything they are trying to do as a team."
In the last 34 races dating back to last season, Keselowski has 18 top-10s and five victories under Wolfe's guidance in the No. 2 Dodge.
"Paul is an extremely talented guy with great organizational skills," Petree said. "The success of that team has been remarkable."