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Letarte: Is a crew chief breakthrough on horizon?

Duck Commander 500 - Practice

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 04: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, talks with crew chief Steve Letarte in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Jeff Gross

Is this 2011 all over again? Are crew chiefs with engineering backgrounds about to break through?

Remember 2011? That’s when two crew chiefs with engineering backgrounds - Darian Grubb with Tony Stewart and Bob Osborne with Carl Edwards - dominated the Chase for the Sprint Cup and entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway battling for the title. They finished 1-2 in the championship. They were so good, they tied. Tony won the crown on a tiebreaker.

Since? No crew chief with an engineering foundation has won the Sprint Cup championship. Why?

I got to thinking about that this week with the news that Chad Knaus had extended his contract with Hendrick Motorsports through 2018. Chad does not have an engineering degree. He, like myself, came up doing various jobs at Hendrick Motorsports. I started by sweeping floors at age 16, later became an underneath mechanic and car chief before becoming Jeff Gordon’s crew chief 10 years later in 2005.

If you look at the 16 crew chiefs in this year’s Chase, few have backgrounds similar to mine. Eleven of the 16 crew chiefs trained to be engineers - either they received degrees or took college courses in that field.

The five in the Chase without such experience are Rodney Childers (Kevin Harvick’s crew chief), Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski), Jason Ratcliff (Matt Kenseth), Tony Gibson (Kurt Busch) and Chad (Jimmie Johnson). Those five combined to win 13 of the first 26 races this season.

Does their success prove that a crew chief without engineering expertise is still the way to go or is the tide turning?

Consider these numbers:

  • In 2012, four of the 12 crew chiefs (33.3 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds. None placed higher than fourth in the points. Those crew chiefs combined to win two Chase races.
  • In 2013, five of the 13 crew chiefs (38.5 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds and none placed higher than fourth in the points. They won two Chase races.
  • In 2014, nine of the 16 crew chiefs (56.3 percent) in the Chase had engineering backgrounds. They placed second, third, fourth and sixth but the championship went to Harvick and Rodney, who is a former driver. Not an engineer. Engineering-based crew chiefs won three Chase races.

Now, 68.8 percent of the crew chiefs in this Chase have engineering in their past. If an engineer still doesn’t ring the bell at Homestead this year, has the experiment failed or are we going to continue to go down this road?

I feel I was a successful crew chief with Jeff and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. despite not having a college education or engineer training. I succeeded by managing people. That’s one of the most important jobs for a crew chief.

I don’t feel it’s only the crew chief’s role to make the car go fast. The task of making a car go fast already is delegated. You have the aerodynamics group, the chassis dynamics group, the simulation group and so on.

I don’t think I can delegate the role of sitting up on the pit box and making the gut decision of when to pit and when not to pit. I can’t delegate the role of pressing the button on the radio and controlling the temper of the driver and get them mentally back into the game.

With this push toward more engineers becoming crew chiefs, my question is are we being too short-sighted? Are we stuck with tunnel vision on what it takes to be a good crew chief? Are car owners making the right decisions on who should lead their teams? Or is this the future?

Well, you tell me. We’ve got 10 races to decide. Will it be a crew chief with an engineering background celebrating the championship in Homestead on NBC or not?

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