When former crew chief Andy Petree moved from Leo Jackson's team to Richard Childress Racing in 1993, he was thrilled by the opportunity to work with a championship-caliber driver like Dale Earnhardt. At the same time, he was a little terrified -- because he would be working for a championship-caliber driver like Dale Earnhardt, and it was time to find out whether he could succeed among the levels of pressure and expectation that such an association would bring.
"I remember thinking about what a great opportunity it was to work with Dale Earnhardt. But also, if we don't perform, if we don't do well -- I'm gone," said Petree, now a television analyst. "And I'm not just gone from there. Heck, I might be gone from the scene. I felt that pressure. Early on, we weren't bad, we just weren't putting up really good numbers, and I was nervous. ... I'll tell you, you feel it. The crew chiefs feel it just as much as the drivers do when they make a change."
At least Petree had the luxury of coming in at the start of a season, giving him ample opportunity to build a connection with his driver and place his stamp on the No. 3 program before wheels began to turn. He wasn't shuffled in during the middle of the year and asked to salvage a foundering operation -- which is the situation a few crew chiefs find themselves in now, as the circuit heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An off week is always a preferred time for struggling teams to make changes, and this season three outfits did just that before loading up their cars for the Brickyard.
First it was Roush Fenway, which replaced Bob Osborne as crew chief of Carl Edwards' No. 99 team with Chad Norris, who previously led the organization's research and development department. Tuesday, Todd Berrier left JTG Daugherty to take the crew chief's position at Furniture Row Racing, where outgoing signal-called Pete Rondeau moved into an R&D role. Berrier -- who was also general manager at JTG Daugherty -- was replaced by veteran crew chief David Hyder and Bobby Hutchens, who helped build Stewart-Haas Racing into an immediate contender before being released from the organization last year.
Their missions are likely very different -- Norris is being tasked with trying to jump-start a No. 99 team that's been competitive and stands 11th in points, but hasn't been able to win. Hyder and Berrier are almost certainly attempting battleship-like turns of organizations seeking to find improvement over the second half of the season that can be used as building blocks for next year. In each case, though, there's the challenge of parachuting into a new and difficult situation and trying to quickly build trust in teammates who have been beaten down by less-than-desired results. No question, simply the act of change can energize a program by bringing an influx of new ideas and optimism. But ultimately, it has to translate into performance on the race track for it to be effective.
That's the tightrope new crew chiefs must walk, and they have only days to find their balance while drivers hope for immediate reversals of fortune. "You know it could take a little bit of time, but you're hoping that he's got some kind of magic in his pocket or in his pen or in his skills there that's going to help things," said former Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett, who will call Sunday's race at the Brickyard on ESPN with colleague Petree. "But it is a difficult situation, to walk in and be expected to make a big change and a big difference in the way that things are going."
Jarrett would know. Although he enjoyed a long run of success with crew chief Todd Parrott at Robert Yates Racing that included his championship campaign of 1999 and the Daytona 500 the following season, later in his driving career he endured his share of mid-year crew chief changes. Jarrett started the 2002 season with Jimmy Elledge on the box, but Parrott returned after the No. 88 car got off to a slow start. The following season he started out with Brad Parrott, who was replaced nine races in by Garth Finley, who was replaced after three races by Shawn Parker. After a year of stability with Mike Ford, the changes began again -- Ford gave way to Bill Wilburn, who gave way back to Todd Parrott.
Not every midseason crew chief change is due to performance issues; sometimes, they're a domino effect of dismissals elsewhere, and signal-callers moving on for a better opportunity. But that's not the case this year with Edwards, whose long association with Osborne ended last week partly because of the crew chief's health issues, according to the Roush Fenway team. Still, last year's championship runner-up is clearly lacking something, and now it's Norris' turn to try and figure out what it is.
"He has a big challenge, because it's not like, 'OK, we have a few races to get to know each other, and then we'll start building on something.' He's sitting there on the brink of not making the Chase after almost winning it last year, and I think they are under a tremendous amount of pressure to go out and win races," Petree said. "Because that's the only way they're going to get in, it looks like. I'd hate to have that job. If they don't go out and win, then it's just going to be tough on a new crew chief, whoever it is. I wouldn't want that position. It's going to be a challenge for them."
At least Norris has the benefit of being a known entity, given his previous position within the Roush organization. "Bringing someone in like Chad, where he's been a part of that organization, should be a little bit of a help," Jarrett said. "It's not like they haven't known one another and Chad doesn't know how things go at Roush Fenway. That could help them to kind of jump-start this thing a little bit sooner."
It's a similar situation over at JTG Daugherty, where Hyder previously worked as crew chief for the team's K&N Pro Series East program. He won't even have to change desks, although he's now Bobby Labonte's signal-caller. "He really is very competitive. I like his style," Petree said of Hyder. "Everywhere he goes, it seems, especially in the beginning of a relationship, they seem to do well. So that might spark that team to do something at this point. And they're not under near the pressure that Carl Edwards' team is to get it done right now."
Neither is Regan Smith at Furniture Row, though Berrier does face the added hurdle of taking a midseason position for a team based in Denver. Even so, familiarity brings with it no guarantees -- Edwards' teammate at Roush, Greg Biffle, went through a similar crew chief change at around this time last year when Matt Puccia was brought over from the R&D department to oversee the No. 16 team. Although Biffle's team showed flashes of improvement over the second half last season, the consistently strong results didn't emerge until early 2012. Same with Matt Kenseth, who was paired with former Roush R&D chief Jimmy Fennig midway through 2010, and needed until the final few events of that season to show the performance that currently has him atop Sprint Cup points.
Edwards is in a different situation, and in need of just one victory to vault him into serious wild-card contention. Nineteen years ago, Petree's transition to RCR was a rousing success -- he won the championship with the Intimidator, and then oversaw Earnhardt's seventh and final title run in 1994. Unlike Petree, though, Norris doesn't have the benefit of six years of Cup-level experience, or a full winter of preparation. He's being dropped into a must-win situation cast against the backdrop of the most famous race track in the world. No time to waste.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.