Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Stock car racing has always been a “what have you done for me lately” kind of sport. When you work in the NASCAR garage, you’re only as good as your last finish – or even your last pit stop -- and job security is something only a fortunate few enjoy.

When you work for Jack Roush, the lifeline is stretched even thinner. The Roush-Fenway Racing owner has never been shy about making midseason personnel moves, and when something goes awry on any of his four NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, “The Cat In The Hat” is ready, willing and able to move people around, transfer them out, or even hand them a pink slip.

Latest case in point? The strange saga of Drew Blickensderfer.

One year ago today, Blickensderfer was the hottest crewchief in all of NASCAR, after overseeing back-to-back victories by Matt Kenseth in the Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500. Today, he’s the former crewchief of Kenseth’s #17 Crown Royal Ford, after being shuffled off to Roush-Fenway’s Research and Development department -– the auto racing equivalent of the Russian Front -- in favor of veteran Todd Parrott.

The timing of the move could not have been more strange. Why would Roush-Fenway retain Blickensderfer through a long, cold offseason, only to replace him just one race into the new campaign? What issues could possibility have surfaced at Daytona that were not known to the team long beforehand?

The blame, said Kenseth, was all his.

The 2003 Sprint Cup champion called the timing of last week’s change “100-percent my fault,” admitting that Roush approached him at the end of last season to suggest replacing Blickensderfer. Kenseth argued against the move, feeling his pit chief could use the offseason to improve.

However, Kenseth said he realized during Speedweeks 2010 at Daytona that his team was not properly motivated to win races and contend for another championship. Asked what needed to be changed, he replied, “the whole dynamic of the team. We needed a spark,” adding that he believes Parrott is the man to provide that spark.

Parrott -– the son of legendary crewchief Buddy Parrott -- is outgoing, opinionated and emotional; words seldom used to describe his new driver. Some observers immediately questioned whether two such divergent personalities would be able to mesh, but Kenseth said he believes their differences will make them strong. Since he is not a natural leader himself, Kenseth said he needs an emotional, cheerleading crewchief to motivate the #17 team.

Roush went to great lengths last week to state that Blickensderfer still has a home at Roush-Fenway. “I wanted to make sure that everybody felt my passion, my empathy, my support and my belief in Drew Blickensderfer,” he said. “As conflicted as I am, Matt is equally conflicted.”

“Matt doesn’t like to be wrong,” said a Roush-Fenway team member this week, on the condition of anonymity. “`Blick’ was Matt’s choice to be crewchief. Jack had someone else in mind, but Matt knew who he wanted. It was Matt who brought him in, and ultimately, it was Matt’s decision to make this change.”

Roush will apparently play things a bit more cautiously this time around.

"Todd’s position is interim on the 17 team, with an expectation that we can get a formula here that will work better than what we’ve had,” said Roush. In an effort to smooth the transition, Roush assigned Robbie Reiser -– who crewchiefed Kenseth’s 2003 championship run -– to sit atop the pit box with Parrott at Auto Club Speedway for what he called an “all hands on deck weekend.”

The early returns were positive, with Kenseth authoring a seventh place Fontana finish after qualifying in the 20th position. That’s not as good as a year ago, but it’s not bad. And it’s almost certainly good enough to earn Parrott sole command of the ship this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Parrott’s credentials as a Sprint Cup Series crewchief are strong. He won the 1999 championship with Dale Jarrett, the highlight of a seven-year run that saw the pair combine to win 26 races between 1995 and 2002. Recently, however, the wins have been tough to come by. He managed just two wins with Elliott Sadler, one in a reunion tour with Jarrett, and has gone winless in the last couple of years with Bobby Labonte, David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil. He lasted just eight races with Labonte last season before being shuffled from Yates Racing to Roush-Fenway’s restrictor plate program.

Parrott knows what happens to NASCAR crewchiefs when they don’t win, and seems determined to do whatever it takes to get Kenseth back to Victory Lane and the 2010 Chase For The Sprint Cup.

“I’m going to go out a winner,” he said. “I don’t want to be remembered going through the things that happened to me last year. I had a great year in 2008 with Travis, then last year I only made it five or six races and they took me off. That was very disheartening, but I understood. I kept working and kept digging. That’s the way I’ve been taught.

“That’s the way the Parrotts do things. They don’t give up.”

Best of luck, Todd. And please, don’t take too long getting it done.

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