The key figures behind the Chase contenders
The Chase for the Sprint Cup Class of 2009 is set. From top seed Mark Martin to 12th-place Greg Biffle, the competitors are all household names. But there are throngs of people supporting them behind the scenes, and whoever lifts the championship at the end of the season in Homestead, Fla., would never have made it to the stage had it not been for those key individuals.
Here are six individuals who have made a difference for their organizations this season.
Eddie Jarvis and Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas Racing
When word started leaking of a possible merger between Tony Stewart and Gene Haas in April 2008, Eddie Jarvis and Brett Frood, two of Stewart’s trusted lieutenants, wanted the driver’s assurance that he was “all in.”
This was not a venture to be handled lightly. There was too much at stake for the two-time champion and his existing companies. And with only 10 months remaining before the 2009 Daytona 500, decisions had to be made.
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“He wasn’t going to be just a driver anymore,” said Frood, who holds a vice president title at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“And the reason (Stewart) has been successful is 98 percent of the time he’s allowed us to do our jobs so he could concentrate on just racing,” said Jarvis, also a vice president at SHR.
Signing Office Depot, Old Spice and Burger King at a reported $1 million per race was a coup in this economic environment. The matching red color schemes of Office Depot and Old Spice gave each company subliminal brand exposure even if it wasn’t on the hood.
Once the pair hired GM Bobby Hutchens and Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb, Jarvis said “it took a load off of us.” Hutchens and Grubb could concentrate on competition and allow Jarvis and Frood to supply the life blood — sponsorship.
“Once we got the financial side locked in, it gave us the flexibility to let the marketing department do all the fluff and buff side of it to make it all pretty,” Stewart said, “But it let us worry about making the race cars go fast at that point and get ready to go to Daytona.”
While Jarvis and Frood share the same rung on the company ladder, their journeys to Stewart-Haas could not have been any more different. Those differing past experiences helped establish each other’s strengths that complement one another.
Jarvis’ foray into NASCAR started as a motorcoach driver for Kenny Wallace, but after meeting Tony Stewart, he changed his path. Stewart’s talent was obvious, but what appealed to Jarvis was “the brand.” Jarvis has considered himself Stewart’s “right hand” since 2001, but believes “the best decision the company ever made” was hiring Frood.
“I know a lot of people and can put things together but I needed my left hand — which he is — to pull all the pieces together,” Jarvis said. “The fun part for me is that he’s taught me so much about life and business.
“On the other side, I’ve taught him a lot about how this sport works. I’ve taught him about the politics in the garage. He came from Wall Street and this is a different world. But I don’t think I could have gone out and picked a better partner to work with.”
Frood earned degrees from Brown and Harvard universities, but lacked the racing background until Cary Agajanian, Stewart’s agent, made the introduction. In 2004, Frood moved to Indianapolis and began working with Stewart’s company, True Speed Enterprises.
|“That’s what we’re here for — to enhance Tony as an individual and his businesses.”|
|— Brett Frood|
With Jarvis’ street smarts and Frood’s classical business training, the pair accomplished the near impossible — pulling together the Stewart-Haas-Hendrick partnership plus all the subsequent deals to bring the company to fruition.
Whether Jarvis and Frood agree or disagree, when decisions are made it’s in the best interest of Stewart and the company.
“As Eddie said, aside from ‘let’s make a sound business decision that is filled with values and integrity,’ let’s make sure that it positions Tony in the best way — whether it’s from a personal standpoint or a business standpoint,” Frood said. “That’s what we’re here for — to enhance Tony as an individual and his businesses. That’s the fun part about it. And it’s what has allowed us to evolve so quickly.”
And one of the reasons Stewart is among the favorites to claim this year’s championship.
Steve Letarte, crew chief, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet
Jeff Gordon didn’t mince words at Atlanta when he confessed, “Steve Letarte has been the one that has turned our program around this year.”
“He just really dug down deep to make this team stronger,” Gordon said, “and what transpired from that was a lot of work from a lot of different people, but it takes him to orchestrate that and push that and get that going throughout the shop and our organization. We’re still a team capable of battling for championships.”
Letarte, 30, has been a fixture around Hendrick Motorsports since he was a teenager. He started by sweeping floors at the No. 24 shop and worked his way up on the team from mechanic to tire specialist and eventually the car chief in 2002.
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In 2005, after Gordon missed the Chase for the first time, Letarte was named crew chief for the No. 24 team for the final 10 races of the season. Two years later, Gordon and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson battled for the title in a contest that went to Johnson by just 77 points.
“I think that he learned so much from last year’s experience and the last two years,” Gordon said of Letarte. “I think that he really took it upon himself to become more of a leader with this team and say, ‘Listen, we have to make our cars better, we have to be stronger in these areas, be faster on the mile-and-a-halves.'”
With the new car, Letarte knew he had to find a way to make the ride as comfortable for the veteran as possible. If Gordon could not find the feel he wanted, Letarte knew the second-best option was to make the car fast.
“We had to stop searching for feel and just give him one of the fastest cars out there,” Letarte said. “Whether they feel as good as he thinks they should or drive as good as he thinks they should, they are much more competitive. That’s probably been the biggest decision we made in the offseason that has improved our performances.
“When you have a guy with a résumé like Jeff, who has won 82 races, his opinion on car feel is extremely, extremely high. With the old car, if it drove good it ran well. With this car it doesn’t need to feel the best, it needs to run the fastest. Those don’t go hand in hand like people would assume they would. They don’t give a trophy for the most comfortable car — they give the award to the guy that finishes the 500 miles the fastest.”
Gordon’s results over the first 26 races — second in the standings with one win, 12 top fives and 18 top 10s — is proof that Letarte was spot on. Although Gordon has been shuffled back to sixth in the Chase now that the points have been re-calculated, the team never fell below third in points after Daytona.
Greg Ives, team engineer, No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson’s unsung hero is Greg Ives, who over the last four years has earned the role of lead engineer for the three-time champion.
So who is Greg Ives?
“He’s the tall, wiry kid who always sits next to Chad (crew chief Knaus) on the pit box,” Johnson said. “He worked his way through the system and is now the primary engineer for the 48. He’s the filter. He and Chad make all the decisions.”
Ives, Johnson said, “Organizes everything for Chad so he can make the calls,” collecting data and adding his opinion on possible adjustments to the car.
Ives, 30, is a second-generation racer from Bark River, Mich. His brother raced motocross, dune buggies “and whatever else he could find,” Ives said. When Ives turned 16, his brother handed over the racing reins.
Ives tried his hand at Late Models but took the advice from his father, Roger to “get an education.”
“Dad was a mechanic,” Ives said. “I had great respect for him. He said, ‘If you knew about race cars and how they work you’ll be able to get somewhere.'”
Ives graduated from Michigan Technological University in 2003 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He started at Hendrick Motorsports the following year.
In the last two years, Ives has helped Knaus calculate the fuel mileage as well as helping to dial in the car. He believes his experience as a former driver has simplified the process.
“When I started I was green,” Ives said. “I didn’t know what Jimmie was looking for. A lot of what you have to understand is the lingo of the driver and being able to interpret it over the course of a race.
“You learn how Jimmie reacts to different things. It’s the key words. When Jimmie says he’s loose, you interpret it differently than when he says he’s on top of the track. There’s really no secret.”
Jeff Thousand, car chief, No. 2 Miller Dodge
When Rusty Wallace retired from the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge in 2005, so did his former wrench and fellow St. Louisan Jeffrey Thousand. After 30 years on the road from Late Models to NASCAR, it was time for a break.
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A disciple of former Penske South president Don Miller, Thousand was satisfied working back at the shop — until this year when his services were requested.
“He eases my mind on a lot of things and there are a lot of things that I don’t have to worry about because he’s so experienced,” said crew chief Pat Tryson. “Him coming on board this year has been a plus for us and has made a big difference.
“Jeff takes care of the car while we’re making decisions and gets all the changes done. He’s one of the few guys in the garage that if you see him and he’s not next to the car, it’s a rarity. He’s always over by the car and it’s his baby all weekend and he doesn’t get far from it.”
In 2008, Kurt Busch finished 18th in the standings — the worst showing for the 2004 champ since his rookie year. In 36 starts he posted just 10 top 10s, including one win and five top fives.
This season Busch enters the Chase seventh. He credits Thousand’s years of experience for elevating the entire team.
“All the crew guys look up to him,” Busch said. “His work ethic is second to none and that makes all guys work harder.”
With Thousand’s dedication to owner Roger Penske and the “2 Crew,” it didn’t take much prodding to get him back to the racetrack.
“I just love being on the road with everyone,” Thousand said. “I’m here to win. I’m here to win for Penske Racing. We got that Daytona 500 win (Ryan Newman, 2008) and now we have to get a championship.
“We’ve had a lot of wins and a few years ago we came up short on the title. But (Penske) gives us everything we need to win a championship. We just have to go out and get the job done.”
Andy Ward, pit crew coach and coordinator, Yates Racing
Greg Biffle couldn’t have been clearer during his post-race celebration at Richmond about how he qualified for the Chase, offering a well-deserved shout-out to the No. 16 3M Ford pit crew and their coach Andy Ward.
“Those guys are probably the reason why we’re sitting here tonight,” Biffle said. “Our car wasn’t that great in the beginning. Through the middle part of the race I gained every single time I came down pit road, whether it was one, two or three (spots), and one stop I gained four spots. I can’t say enough about them. I’m so excited about it. I just hope we prove some people wrong once this Chase gets going that we’re gonna be ones to be looked at.”
In the last 15 races, Biffle slid out of the Chase Zone just once following a horrendous evening at Chicago. Overall, the Roush Fenway cars just haven’t been up to speed this season. But the one variable Biffle has been able to rely on is his pit crew.
“Andy’s a great guy,” Biffle said. “He does a great job with the pit crew guys, the training, all the coaching that he does. It takes a lot of special people. People are what win championships — not a good engine, not a good car — it’s the people that will win a title.”
Ward, 36, grew up in Kannapolis, N.C., and graduated from Appalachian State with a degree in exercise and physiology. Ward, who specializes in human performance, was one of the first coaches on the NASCAR tour.
While many coaches rely simply on the stopwatch, Ward focuses on not making mistakes.
“Talent will carry us to the time we need,” Ward said. “Making big boneheaded moves trying to go faster than you’re capable of only hurts you in the end.”
His current teams include Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 (Biffle) and No. 6 (David Ragan) as well as Yates Racing’s No. 96 (Bobby Labonte) and No. 98 (Paul Menard). But Ward admits the No. 16 crew — the Pit Bulls — “have incredible chemistry.”
“There’s a unique selflessness to that team,” Ward said. “There’s no one person on that team that thinks they are bigger than the other. It’s a crazy mix of guys but the chemistry is perfect.
“Everybody bleeds to do their job and that attitude has seeped into the entire team.”