Analysis: Appreciating the best strategists among crew chiefs


Among NASCAR’s crew chiefs, several productive strategists stand out from the rest, impacting race results from a variety of different running whereabouts this season.

Here’s a look into what five crew chiefs, separated by average running position (ARP), have accomplished on behalf of their drivers during green-flag pit cycles through the first 22 races:

Cliff Daniels, ARP 7th-12th

Potentially lost in Kyle Larson’s ascent is the rise in crew chief Cliff Daniels’ reputation as a strategist; he’s sufficiently weaponized Larson’s speed around green-flag pit cycles as an aggressive method for defending top-five spots.

And it’s worked well, to the tune of a 70.37% retention rate for all of Larson’s running positions within that range, over 18 percentage points better than the series-wide average. Without many spots up for grabs when running toward the front this frequently, the No. 5 car has actually gained one position this season on non-drafting ovals, a rare feat among the fastest teams.

“Knowing that one of our strengths is physically pitting the car, the guys do such a good job,” Daniels said in May. “I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around because I know that’s one of our strengths.”

Defense aside, Daniels’ offense was integral to Larson’s second-place finish at Darlington. Across four green-flag pit cycles, Daniels found 11 positions on Larson’s behalf, which included a jump from sixth to second in the cycle running from laps 207-240.

Similarly, the crew chief netted four spots for his driver in the Sonoma race win, where a multitude of strategies were executed around him. In a backup car in the Sunday tilt at Pocono Raceway, Daniels kept Larson afloat in the running order with a whopping 41-position net for the day, helping the 20th-fastest machine, per its median lap rank, achieve a second-place finish.

Greg Ives, ARP 13th-18th

In two of Alex Bowman’s three wins this season, the strategic designs of crew chief Ives proved instrumental. At Richmond, Ives scored nine positions across the final three green-flag pit cycles, moving the fourth-fastest car into a winning position against the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

At Pocono, Ives’ six positions gained on Bowman’s behalf, including a leap from seventh to fourth on the final cycle, placed the No. 48 car in a spot high enough to benefit when Larson and Hamlin before him eschewed the second-most valuable launching spot at the 2.5-mile track prior to the final restart. It was that restart that propelled Bowman to the front, in optimal sniffing distance to capitalize on Larson’s blown left front tire.

For the year, he’s supplied Bowman an additional 10-position net, with 24 coming on non-drafting ovals. His 16 cycles consisting of at least a two-position gain ranks as the fifth most in the series.

Ives’ 76.74% retention rate across all green-flag pit cycles ranks fifth among full-time crew chiefs and first among those qualified for the playoffs. He’s retained Bowman’s spot on 66.67% of cycles when relinquishing a top-five position, over 14 points higher than the series average.

Mike Shiplett, ARP 19th-22nd

Shiplett’s been a revelation among strategists since he was promoted from the Xfinity Series along with Cole Custer in 2020. Last season, he earned 109 positions — the second most among all crew chiefs — on Custer’s behalf, including 19 in their win at Kentucky.

After a sluggish start to 2021, Shiplett is back on the same trajectory, with 64 positions gained — with 42 coming on road courses — and a 72.97% retention rate. The latter number is particularly impressive when considering his ability to defend position; in 37 total cycles in which Custer’s No. 41 car participated, it suffered just one loss of five or more spots, a total not replicated by any other team averaging a top-30 running position.

He recently chipped in 14 positions during the second part of the Pocono doubleheader, a necessary effort given Custer’s 38th-place starting spot that day in a backup car.

Drew Blickensderfer, ARP 19th-22nd

Michael McDowell’s finishing average has improved to 18.2, beyond the 20.9 that was the previous best of Front Row Motorsports’ history last year. Key in this progression is the strategy of Blickensderfer, who’s supplied his driver 181 positions across the last two seasons with 55 across this year’s first 22 races.

And that’s a tally that’s a taken a hit recently — the No. 34 car lost 16 positions via green-flag pitting at Road America earlier this month — but a broader view suggests Blickensderfer’s maneuvering is relatively airtight; his 21 cycles with gains of two or more positions ranks first among all crew chiefs, as does his 43-position net on non-drafting ovals.

There’s a line from the crew chief’s output to the driver’s standout finishes. Blickensderfer’s best efforts — a 24-position net at Nashville, a 16-spot gain at COTA and 14 positions earned in the Daytona 500 — respectively led to McDowell’s best finish on a paved 750-horsepower oval, a seventh place finish and a race win.

Ryan Sparks, ARP 23rd-34th

Plucking crew chief Ryan Sparks from GoFas Racing along with driver Corey LaJoie was a masterstroke by Spire Motorsports. Last year, Sparks supplied his driver 74 positions across green-flag pit cycles, and the focus on offense has only grown in their second season together.

LaJoie’s improved all-around passing acumen — he ranks first in surplus passing value among full-time drivers on 750-horsepower tracks and third in the same category on all non-drafting ovals — is a boon, and coupled with Sparks’ 66 positions gained this season on green-flag pit cycles, the No. 7 car is a reliable mover on long runs despite being the 29th-fastest car, per its average median lap ranking.

Sparks has tallied 17 cycles consisting of at least two-spot gains, including the final cycles leading to two of LaJoie’s recent top-20 finishes at Charlotte (from 19th to 17th) and Nashville (from 19th to 16th).