It can be a cruel thing, the off week. While many involved with the Sprint Cup circuit use the break as a brief respite from the 10-month grind, crew chiefs of struggling teams spend the time dreading that phone call or tap on the shoulder that's followed by a request to visit the office upstairs. With an extra week to prepare, with seven races remaining in the regular season, and with a big-money, high-prestige event looming in Indianapolis, this is the time to make a change if a program deems one necessary to be made.
We certainly saw that last season, as a number of teams swapped signal-callers on the off weekend before descending upon the Brickyard. Some of those moves worked, a few more didn't. But none of them were quite as notable as the one that unfolded Tuesday, when Roush Fenway Racing announced that Bob Osborne had been replaced as crew chief on the No. 99 team of Carl Edwards.
That's a whopper, in more ways than one. Here we are in mid-July, and now neither of the two drivers who tied for the Sprint Cup championship -- which Tony Stewart won on race victories -- has the same crew chief he did on the night the title was decided just eight months ago. Perhaps nothing else emphasizes just how fast this sport moves, and how quickly teams can fall behind. And then there's the not-so-small fact that Edwards and Osborne have been almost joined at the hip for the past nine years, getting split up once only to be reunited again, as closely identified with one another as they are with that No. 99 car. Edwards has won 19 times in the sport's top division, 18 of them with Osborne on the box. The lone exception was at Texas at 2008, when Roush general manager Robbie Reiser filled in while Osborne was serving a six-week suspension for an oil tank lid violation.
And the car Edwards drove that night surely had his regular crew chief's fingerprints all over it, making it safe to say that last season's championship runner-up has never won a Sprint Cup race that Osborne hasn't been involved with in some way. They were broken up once before, in 2006, when Jack Roush moved Osborne to Jamie McMurray's team in attempt to improve the performance of that program. The plan backfired so badly -- not only did McMurray continue to flail, but Edwards went winless with new crew chief Wally Brown -- that Roush eventually reversed course and reunited the two men who had worked so well together on the No. 99.
So no, breaking up Edwards and Osborne is no small thing, particularly given that the driver doesn't have a history of winning at the Sprint Cup level with anyone else, particularly given that the Chase is rapidly approaching and Edwards is going to need at least one victory to get in. At 46 points -- now more than a full race -- behind 10th-place driver Brad Keselowski, it appears Edwards' hopes of making the playoff on points are fading fast. That's a heck of a situation for his new crew chief, who until Tuesday led Roush's research and development program, to walk into. Welcome to the big leagues, Chad Norris.
But this is a sport where adaptation and adjustment are everything, and no relationship lasts forever. Even Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham split up, and given the nature of their professional relationship at the time, likely would have done so even if Dodge hadn't come calling with an offer for Evernham to spearhead its return to the sport. Stewart and Greg Zipadelli split up, although they're working together again now in capacities different from what they once did. As difficult as it is to believe, one day even Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will part ways. To a large degree, Edwards and Osborne defied the odds by staying together as long as they did. These days, a union that spans the better part of nine seasons is the exception rather than the rule.
Given all that, though, Tuesday's news wasn't altogether unexpected, particularly in light of the way the No. 99 car has been running this season. Edwards hasn't been terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but there's no question that something seemed missing. Only once, in the April race at Richmond that got away because of a restart mix-up, has Edwards really been in a position to win. It's been a very long time -- 52 races -- since Edwards' last victory, at Las Vegas in March of 2011, and he had snapped a 70-race skid not long before that. In a championship format that hinges on race victories, something Edwards learned firsthand last season, he just hasn't been able to win. And now his consistency is slipping, as evidenced by finishes of 18th or worse in three of his last four outings. Sometimes, change is the only alternative.
Really, this move is no indictment of Bob Osborne. There are plenty of crew chiefs who lost jobs or stepped aside only to flourish later amid new ideas and new surroundings. Look at Jimmy Fennig, who was once in the same R&D role at Roush that Norris recently occupied, now calling the shots for Daytona 500 champion and current Sprint Cup points leader Matt Kenseth. Sunday's miscommunication at New Hampshire aside, look at Darian Grubb, fired by Stewart in the middle of a title run last season, now with two victories to his credit as crew chief for Denny Hamlin. Look at Steve Addington, the fall guy for Kyle Busch's collapse in 2009, and now with three wins for the reigning champ Stewart. Look at Brian Pattie, cut loose as Juan Montoya's signal-caller last season and now leading Clint Bowyer back into the Chase.
In NASCAR, these things happen. Eighteen victories at the sport's top level are nothing to dismiss, and Osborne will almost certainly have an opportunity to return to a crew chief's position -- should he want to. That becomes something of a question in the aftermath of Tuesday's announcement, which referred to unspecified health issues as a reason Osborne was stepping down. "Concerns with my health have necessitated that I change my role within the organization," Osborne said in a statement released by Roush. Citing Osborne's privacy, the team declined to provide any further information as to what those health issues are, or how serious they might be. Osborne's new role is senior member of Roush Fenway's management team and steering committee, an avenue which at first glance doesn't exactly appear to lead back to the top of a pit box.
But in the short term the spotlight falls on Norris, who worked as part-time crew chief on both Trevor Bayne's Nationwide and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Sprint Cup efforts, and comes from the same Roush R&D wing that also produced Matt Puccia, the crew chief who has helped lead Greg Biffle back toward the top of the standings. So there's clearly some potential there, and the arrival of a new crew chief is always accompanied by renewed hope and excitement, and one victory for Edwards would still change everything as far as his postseason hopes are concerned. If this was a move solely to prepare for the 2013 season, Roush almost certainly would have waited until the Chase opener at Chicagoland to make it.
So Edwards hasn't quite reached a desperation point, not yet. With a 20-point advantage over 12th place, it's not inconceivable to think that he could go to Richmond -- a track where he led 206 laps in the spring, and might have won had he not jumped a late restart -- needing a victory to make the Chase. With races and possibilities still remaining, it's premature to speak definitively. Well, except in one regard: eventually, Edwards and his new crew chief will reach the same point he's at with his former one. After all, it's the nature of a business where the only real constant is change.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.