It’s long been debated whether the driver or the crew chief has the biggest impact on success coming to a race team.
I first started to ponder this question in the mid 1990s when Jeff Gordon was paired with crew chief Ray Evernham at Hendrick Motorsports. Together, the two dominated the series. However, when Evernham left the team, Gordon didn’t run quite as well.
Evernham started his own team after purchasing assets of a race team from Bill Elliott. He retained Elliott as one of his drivers, in spite of the fact that “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was in the midst of a long losing streak. But with Evernham heading up his team, Elliott suddenly started winning races again.
Factors that would lead one to believe the crew chief is the predominant factor in determining a team’s success have also come to the forefront over the last two years.
Together, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus won a record-tying seven championships. But their chemistry started to fade, and Knaus moved to serving as crew chief for Johnson’s second-year teammate William Byron this season.
Much like when Gordon and Evernham split, Johnson faded into obscurity without Knaus leading his team. At the same time, Knaus seems to be coaching Byron to new highs. He was in contention through the early stages of the playoffs and scored a career-best second place finish at Martinsville.
Again, the evidence appears to suggest that the crew chief is a key factor in a team’s success.
After winning back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships, Martin Truex turned into a mid-pack Cup series driver. However, since being teamed with crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex has developed into one of the Cup series’ current top drivers.
Unfortunately for Truex and Pearn, their Furniture Row Racing team closed its doors after winning the 2017 championship and finishing second in points in 2018.
The duo was quickly picked up by Joe Gibbs Racing, has won seven times this season and will be one of four teams going for the championship next weekend in Homestead.
One could surmise that it’s Pearn’s talent, more than Truex’s driving skills, which have carried the duo to the highest of their career highs.
I argue that it’s a mix of driver and crew chief talent which leads teams to success. Most importantly, chemistry and the ability of the two to communicate well with one another are key factors in leading to success for race teams.
While it takes a top crew chief and a top driver working together to find success in racing, there are multiple other factors. Among those factors, the resources the team has at its disposal and the stage of their lives in which the driver and crew chief come together.
There are, however, times when a driver can carry a team. By the same token, there are super talented crew chiefs who also carry teams to success.
The best example of a driver carrying a team is Michael Schumacher. After winning back-to-back championships with the Benetton Formula 1 team, Schumacher joined the Ferrari team in 1996.
A Ferrari driver had not won a championship since 1979, but Schumacher carried the team to great highs. Five of his seven series championships came as a Ferrari driver.
I believe it was Schumacher’s talent as a driver which carried the Ferrari team to some of its greatest highs.