While all eyes were on the Daytona 500, Greg Ives was at work. His JR Motorsports team had one car that had been wrecked in the Nationwide Series opener the previous day, and another that needed to be loaded for Phoenix. Occasionally he'd stick his head into the break room, where a television was showing the race. He heard bits over the radio feed piped into the shop. And he was home on his couch for the finish, when his former teammates on Jimmie Johnson's team celebrated their victory in NASCAR's biggest event.
Ives knew the feeling. As No. 48 team's longtime engineer, he had been part of the group that won the Daytona 500 in 2006. This past offseason, after five championships and seven years working under Chad Knaus, he left to become a crew chief in his own right, for Regan Smith's No. 7 team at JRM. But while watching his former colleagues spray champagne in Daytona, he still felt the connection, even while sitting at home hundreds of miles away.
"I still feel part of that team," Ives said. "In no way, shape or form did I leave that team on a bad note. Chad and I still talk. One reason Jimmie got in (a JRM Nationwide) car at Phoenix was to help us out and get our stuff growing quicker and faster. All I want is for them to continue to have more success. That trickles down to us. But to see that and how it all played out, I thought it was pretty cool."
Now Ives is taking that experience with one of the best teams in NASCAR history and applying it to his new position, where he's trying to win a Nationwide title with Smith. If early results are any indication, it's been a smooth transition -- after being involved in the crash that sent Kyle Larson's car into the fence at Daytona, the No. 7 team has rebounded with strong runs that included Saturday's third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, which moved Smith up to second in the standings.
"The thing about Greg is his experience," said Smith, 28 points behind series leader Sam Hornish Jr. "He's been in situations the rest of us have never been in, and done it five times in seven years. His experience and leadership from that standpoint is a really big deal. Even (Saturday), I was spun out in the car, I was really frustrated over bad luck and the way things were going. He kept me calm, and he was kind of the voice in my ear keeping me going forward and keeping things going straight. I'm proud of that. I'm just very fortunate to have him on the box."
These days he may wear the red, black and white colors of JRM's No. 7 team, but deep down Ives is all No. 48. His career at NASCAR's national level has been shaped by his relationship with Knaus, with whom he quickly developed a bond through trust and shared work ethic. From a personality standpoint, they're quite different. But neither was afraid of putting in hours, and both soaked up all the knowledge they could -- Knaus from Ray Evernham and Ives in turn from Knaus.
"He knew how much I worked at it," said Ives, whose JRM team receives engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports and counts Rick Hendrick among its co-owners. "He put so much effort into it, and he wanted someone to match that. I felt like I was able to do that and earn his respect."
That's no easy task when you come from Bark River, Mich., in the secluded Upper Peninsula. At 11, Ives was sweeping floors and cleaning tools at the mechanic shop his father and brother owned. Soon he was under the hood performing overhauls. At 16 he started racing, wheeling late models at short tracks and working as his own crew chief. Like other former drivers who would ultimately find themselves atop the pit box -- a group that includes Paul Wolfe, Kenny Francis and Rodney Childers -- he was more fascinated by the cars than the competition.
"I never went out and said, 'I just want to race and beat people.' I was like, 'I want to take this shock and put more rebound in it and go out and feel what it did,'" Ives said. "If I could have tested for 16 or 17 weeks out of the year and never raced one person, I'd probably have had just as much fun."
Even so, his short time as a driver altered the path of his life. His father had always told him he was capable of more than changing oil for a living and Ives originally envisioned a career a pediatrician. But once the racing bug bit, it bit hard. Ives changed his college major from pre-med to engineering. When he was asked as a rookie driver where he wanted to be in 10 years, he immediately knew the answer -- working at Hendrick. He made it in nine.
"From that point, it became a passion," he said. "It became something I had to work hard toward, just because I wasn't in the nucleus of North Carolina. I was in Michigan. I was an outsider. I had to do something that made me a little bit different, and not just a mechanic. Not just a driver. Not just an engineer. I was a combination of all of three. I was able to climb the ladder and have doors open in the right fashion for me to be able to walk through."
That methodical driver is still in there, though, and Smith believes it helps his crew chief better understand what the car needs.
"I haven't witnessed it, but they say he's as good behind the wheel as he is on the box. I'm thinking we need to play around one day and maybe get a late model somewhere and go test out that theory," Smith said, smiling. "But that's what makes him so well-rounded. When you're complaining or talking about something in the car, whatever that may be, he knows and understands that. He's felt that himself before."
His diverse background paid off. A cousin's son-in-law worked as a mechanic on Jeff Gordon's car and passed a resume along to team manager Brian Whitesell, and Ives was hired as a tear-down mechanic shortly after graduating from Michigan Tech in 2003. Within two years, he had become setup plate engineer for Gordon's team. Before the 2006 season, Knaus asked him to become No. 48 team engineer -- on the same day Ives found out his wife was pregnant. His first race was the 2006 Daytona 500, which Johnson won.
Five championships followed. Ives carried all that accumulated experience with him into his current role, where he's trying to make his own mark with Smith on the Nationwide tour. But a part of him will always be with the No. 48 team, with whom he spent so long. No wonder Ives relished this year's Daytona 500 victory even more than the one he was a part of in 2006, even as he watched on television after preparing another driver's car. Over seven years of wearing blue and white, he had helped to make it possible.
"It's almost like this year's 500 meant a little more," he said. "I felt like I was more invested."
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