New guys on the block: First-year crew chiefs face learning curve

Chad Johnston is the new crew chief of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.  

Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

We have a bunch of new guys entering the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in their first year as crew chief. Some have been promoted from the engineering ranks while some have been promoted from the car chief position. The one thing that will be incredibly new to all of them is setting on the pit box and calling the race.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I learned how to do it at the foot of the master — Junior Johnson. Once I was handed the reins, so to speak, I was nervous but also confident because of whom my teacher was. The transition today is somewhat different for these guys.

As an engineer you might have sat on that pit box for a few years and only thought as an engineer. Now that you have been promoted, you have to widen your field of vision and think big picture as a crew chief. Also in the past, you would give your input during the race to the crew chief to helpfully improve the car. Now you will be asking for input and then making hopefully the right tactical decision.

The other part of it is still the same today as it was when I was on top of the box. You are in the people business. You have to have the right people in the right places all willing to check their various ego’s at the door and work as one.

I have always used the analogy that once you are bumped up to be the top dog of the race team, you have to be willing to change your game. Where before you were playing checkers, well now you are playing chess or where you were a successful pitcher in the AAA baseball league, well now you are pitching against the New York Yankees.

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As I mentioned earlier, you have to think big picture. You have to constantly strive to think four or five moves ahead of your competition. Just like your driver has to have great anticipation out there on the race track, you as the crew chief have to have that same skill in the pits.

A crew chief has to be able to do it all. They have to play psychiatrist, cheerleader and sometimes adult day care provider to their driver. You have to be able to communicate with NASCAR. You have to be able to walk through the shop and have a plan to have the right cars rolling off the line at the right time. Crew chiefs will play marriage counselor to their crew when the demands of the road take its toll on the homefront. You also will have sponsor obligations, media requirements and appearances that you hadn’t dealt with in the past.

There are guys in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series that can sit on that box, think the entire race through and could call it with their eyes blindfolded. Then there are those that can be up there surrounded by five advisors who still don’€™t get it. So to me that is going to be the biggest challenge to these new guys. Who did they learn their craft from?  Who is now around them as support staff?  Most importantly, which one of them is the best chess player?