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Gentlemen, start your engineers: College educations increasingly calling the shots in NASCAR

Budweiser Duel 1

Budweiser Duel 1

NASCAR via Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A college education traditionally hasn’t been a requirement for working in NASCAR, but it’s becoming the fastest route to atop the pit box in the Sprint Cup Series. Nearly half of the drivers in Sunday’s Daytona 500 field are being guided by crew chiefs who have engineering degrees. Most notable is defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who visited victory lane after a qualifying race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway for the first time with crew chief Greg Ives.

Nate Ryan examined the trend in a story Friday for NBC SportsWorld

Ryan writes: “A NASCAR equivalent to “Moneyball” is overhauling the gritty makeup of the mechanics most instrumental to making stock cars hum at 200 mph. Of the last 13 crew chief changes in Sprint Cup during the past five months, a dozen resulted in men with engineering degrees calling the shots.

The lone exception is Tony Gibson, a barrel-chested native of Daytona Beach, Fla., who worked the midnight shift at his hometown camshaft factory while breaking into racing three decades ago.

“I’m on my way out,” Gibson, 50, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “I didn’t know in 1982 that I’d need to go to school to be an engineer in Cup. I went to school to be a machinist, build parts and run a lathe. That’s what you needed to do at the time to be part of racing.”

Times have changed.

Heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500, 21 drivers – nearly half of the 43-car field – will be guided by crew chiefs trained in the principles of physics, and that lineup will include several stars – notably defending race winner and 12-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make his debut with Greg Ives (the engineer who led Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series championship).

The curious marriage of speed freaks and computer geeks is a startling development for a sport long associated with the shade-tree street smarts of grizzled, overall-clad crew chiefs with grease under their fingernails and cigarettes dangling from their lips.

The new CV for being a NASCAR crew chief is a framed diploma hanging on a wall, and it’s added an academic sheen to a traditionally blue-collar garage that increasingly resembles a 700-horsepower study hall of intellectual pedigrees. Nick Sandler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s new crew chief whose bespectacled and boyish visage could pass for Phi Beta Kappa president, assuredly will be the first Duke graduate tasked with critical decisions to take two or four tires on pivotal pit stops.

Many believe there’ll be a day when every crew chief in Cup will have a degree.”

For more, check out Ryan’s story.