With just six races remaining to the start of the Chase for the Championship, some high-profile teams already are in a desperate scramble to make the cut. For several, that frantic push has started with a change at the top.
Five crew chiefs have been fired or re-assigned in the last month, a consequence of NASCAR’s new formula for setting the playoff field. The top 10 drivers in points after the 26th race move into the Chase. So do two wild cards – drivers with wins in the top 20 or the next highest-ranked driver.
Greg Biffle, A.J. Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. probably don’t have enough laps remaining in the regular season to make it into the top 10, so they have to rely on a wild card. And since none of them have a win this year, it was time to do something different.
“It became evident that we had to change something,” Burton said.
Much like picking up a fourth starter in the rotation or a power hitter at the trade deadline, several race teams are changing their lineups for the race to the Chase.
In the past month, Pat Tryson was replaced by Chad Johnston for Truex; Todd Berrier was replaced by Luke Lambert for Burton; Greg Erwin was replaced by Matt Puccia for Biffle; Mike Shiplett was replaced by Erwin for Allmendinger; and Brian Pattie was replaced by Jim Pohlman for Montoya.
None of the five drivers currently are qualified to move into the playoffs, either as a top 10 team or as a wild card. With only six races remaining before the Chase starts Sept. 18 at the Chicagoland Speedway, all needed a different approach for the stretch drive.
Burton felt bad about making a change, but he believed the team needed to shake things up.
“The problem we’re in isn’t a one-person problem,” Burton said. “Todd brings a tremendous amount to the table, a tremendous amount of good but at the end of the day the success just isn’t here. We just can’t continue on down the road we were on. It just wasn’t working.
“But it’s not singly Todd’s fault by any means. Certainly he had some blame in it, and so do I, and so does everybody on the team. But by no means do I think this is 100 percent Todd Berrier’s fault.”
The changes, however, haven’t led to any immediate turnarounds. Biffle finished seventh last Sunday at Indianapolis, but Allmendinger was 22nd, Truex was 24th, Montoya was 28th and Burton was 35th.
Of the five, Biffle has the most realistic chance to make the cut for the playoffs. He’s ranked 13th, but he probably needs to win one of the next six races to lock up a wild card spot.
“It was obvious that the direction we were going we weren’t going to make the Chase,” he said. “But maybe Matt can make enough difference or his voice will be heard that we’ve got to do something. The urgency is now to do something and he’s down there working on those cars until 7 or 8 o’clock at night trying to make the difference. Matt will get done anything in his power to make us the most competitive. Our engines have great power. Our cars are good and fast, so we’ll just wait and see how it all turns out.”
David Ragan went through two crew chiefs last year before settling on Drew Blickensderfer this season. Ragan got his first career Sprint Cup Series win last month and he won the pole for the Brickyard 400 last week. He understands best the importance of having a good working relationship with a crew chief.
“Yeah, I can relate to it,” Ragan said. “Last year we were to a point where we knew we weren’t going to win the championship, we knew that our season was winding down, so we were working on 2011. We made the crew chief change, which was tough because I like Donnie Wingo a lot. I got along with him great, but it was just kind of stale on the (No.) 6 car.
“Sometimes a little chemistry is all it takes to turn things around and, obviously, our race cars are a lot better this year than they were a year ago.”
It still doesn’t make the changes any easier, especially since drivers and crew chiefs generally become good friends. At the same time, that loyalty drags out the inevitable.
“Yeah, and that’s what’s difficult about these situations is when are you being too patient and when are you not being patient enough. I’ve always said the hardest part of what we do in this sport is knowing when to do something different and when you decide you’ve got to do something different sometimes it’s too late, sometimes it’s too early and that’s really difficult,” Burton said.