Friday 5: Could the pandemic impact future crew chief hires?

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Among the lasting impacts the coronavirus will have on NASCAR is showing the sport it can be nimble with schedules, formats and races in ways few thought possible.

Just as impactful, though, could be who will be Cup crew chiefs in the future. How those positions are filled could be changing as a result of these times.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing are among organizations that have promoted an engineer with no significant crew chief experience to lead Cup teams in recent years.

But with many Cup teams no longer sending engineers to races in this era of crew limits, will that trend continue? Two of this year’s new Cup crew chiefs came from the Camping World Truck Series and one moved up from the Xfinity Series.

MORE: Ben Beshore charting Kyle Busch’s course correction

Engineers have been among those squeezed by NASCAR’s crew limits. In 2019, Cup teams were limited to 12 road crew members, not including the pit crew, at the track. That number dropped to 10 road crew members for the start of the 2020 season and dipped to six because of COVID-19 protocols after the season resumed. Teams are allowed a road crew of eight at most events this year. 

With fewer crew members allowed at the track, many teams bring those who are more hands-on with the car.

Two years ago, 29 of the 38 Cup teams (76.3%) competing in the spring Las Vegas race had two engineers at the track. No Cup team will have two engineers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Cup race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

The number of engineers at the Las Vegas spring race has declined 75% since 2019, going from 64 to 16 for Sunday’s race. None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Cup teams will have an engineer at the track this weekend. Two of Team Penske’s three Cup teams also will not have an engineer at Las Vegas.  

“The pandemic number allows for nothing,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte said during this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan. “It doesn’t allow for growth. It doesn’t allow for training. It allows enough people to put a car on the racetrack, which by the way I’m not knocking, as it should.”

Letarte notes the effect crew limits could have for engineers hoping to move into a Cup crew chief role. 

“I think what you’re going to see is a wave of guys that are on the (pit) box in Xfinity and Trucks kind of popping into Cup over the next two or three years, just because there is going to be this 18-month gap of opportunity for that engineer,” Letarte said.

Even though most engineers work remotely on race weekends, they do many of the same roles as when they were at the track. The challenge for Cup engineers aspiring to move up to a crew chief position is that when they are not at the track, they lose out on the rhythms of the weekend, going through inspection, and helping manage the race and team from the pit box.

Letarte noted the education he received before he became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in 2005.

“For two years before I became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, I sat on the box next to Robbie (Loomis),” Letarte said of the former crew chief for Gordon.

“(Loomis) taught me how to see a race. That’s hard to do from home. These engineers that perhaps would be the next step up without the real in-the-battle experience, they might be passed over.”

Another option would be to send them to the Truck or Xfinity Series to be a crew chief and gain the experience they’ve lost out on by not being on the pit box for Cup events.

Miami Cup takeaways
William Byron and his team celebrate their Miami win. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of little things that you don’t get to do as a race engineer that has to do with not just making the car fast, but managing the whole weekend,” crew chief Rudy Fugle said.

Fugle was among those who moved from the Truck Series to Cup after last season. The former Truck champion crew chief joined Hendrick Motorsports to be William Byron’s crew chief this season. The pairing is a reunion. Fugle, who has an engineering background, and Byron worked together at KBM in 2016. 

“It’s a big jump, for sure,” Fugle said of going from the Truck Series to Cup. “It’s hard. It’s definitely not easy. I’m not trying to underplay that. … I didn’t build a team. I came into a team. So, I’m pretty lucky.”

In their third race back, Fugle helped guide Byron to a win last weekend at Miami.

Also moving up from the Truck Series this year is Kevin Bellicourt. He was the crew chief for Derek Kraus last year at Bill McAnally Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Ben Beshore, a former engineer, from his role as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series to be Kyle Busch’s crew chief this season. The two were paired because they had worked together for four years when Beshore was a Cup engineer on the No. 18 team. They also worked together for seven Xfinity races when Beshore was a crew chief in the Xfinity Series.

Now that he’s a Cup crew chief, Beshore’s job is simple.

“There’s pressure for sure,” he said after Busch won last month’s Busch Clash on the Daytona International Speedway road course. “That’s the fun of it, is going out there and performing and trying to steal some wins.”

2. What to expect for Front Row Motorsports?

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win and top-10 finishes in the first three races of the season has been among the early highlights. His sixth-place finish last weekend at Miami was Front Row Motorsports’ first top 10 at a 1.5-mile track in team history. 

McDowell says the success isn’t from any new equipment.

“We’ve made our cars a little bit lighter, a little bit more downforce and we’ve made some small gains, but I don’t feel like we’ve done anything different or special as far as engines and chassis and all those things,” McDowell said. “We’re still getting the same equipment that we got last year.”

Last year, McDowell finished 23rd in points and had four top-10 finishes.

Can this run continue Sunday at Las Vegas for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports?

“I don’t know how we’ll be at Vegas, and I don’t know how we’ll be at Phoenix,” McDowell said of the next two Cup races. “I would love to be the guy that comes on here that I think sort of everybody wants to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re gonna win five races this year and we’re gonna contend for the championship.’ 

“I don’t know that to be true, but I do know we’re gonna fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up.”

3.  Noah Gragson true to himself

Noah Gragson says he wouldn’t change how he drove in the final laps of last weekend’s Xfinity race before he ran into the back of David Starr’s car after it blew a tire. Gragson also says he wouldn’t change what he said about Starr afterward.

“I think the most important thing for me is to stay true to myself, to not really change because I went through a little process last year where I wasn’t really myself,” he said. “People tried to slow me down, and it didn’t really work for me. So, I think for myself, personally, it’s about staying true to myself.”

As to what he meant by last year — a season that saw the JR Motorsports driver in encounters on and off the track with competitors — he explained:

“They told me that I need to be a lot less aggressive and need to be more patient. They said, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) specifically, I sat down with him and he was probably the most key guy. He’s like ‘I don’t want you to lose any speed over it, but you need to be less aggressive and more patient.’

“We had a good conversation, and I tried to do what he said, but I just slowed down. I didn’t have the speed. And I finally got into the playoffs and I’m like, ‘Screw that, I’m going out there and race as hard as I can and be comfortable with myself and race the way I know how to,’ and we had really good results. It’s just one of those deals where there’s a lot of opinions, but if I can be comfortable myself, it’s the best way possible for me.”

4. Familiar look

Nearly a dozen trucks in tonight’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1) will have sponsorship from series sponsor Camping World. This came after Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World, stated on Twitter this week that he would sponsor any truck that needed it for the race.

Among those who will have the blue and yellow for Camping World on their trucks are reigning series champion Sheldon Creed, Grant Enfinger, Parker Kligerman and Jordan Anderson.

Lemonis said he would pay $15,000 to sponsor a truck. That would go up to $25,000 if the team scored a top 10, $35,000 if they finished in the top five, and go up to $50,000 if the team won.

“It’s huge,” Creed said of Lemonis’ offer to teams. “I race for a bigger Truck team (GMS Racing), so maybe we’re not in need of it, say as much as Jordan Anderson and a team like that. Anything helps. We’re at a level now where it just takes everything you have to compete and win every week. If it can start something now and make it grow into a bigger relationship and possibly a sponsor to get me into an Xfinity or Cup car next year, that would be awesome.”

5. Most stage points

Each week, drivers talk about the importance of scoring stage points in races. Here’s a look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

47 — Denny Hamlin

36 — Joey Logano

31 — Chase Elliott

30 — Kyle Larson

28 — Austin Dillon

27 — Kurt Busch

25 — Martin Truex Jr.

23 — Kevin Harvick

21 — Christopher Bell

21 — Bubba Wallace

21 — William Byron

On the other side, here are some of the drivers who have yet to score any stage points this season: Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.