This is a big week for Greg Ives. In terms of his professional career, it’s safe to say the 35-year-old native of Bark River, Mich., has never had a bigger one.
This week, Ives is experiencing his first real taste of the spotlight that comes with being the crew chief for NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Appointed by team owner Rick Hendrick to replace Steve Letarte atop the No. 88 pit box for the 2015 season, Ives is not only adjusting to a position that is one of the most pressure packed in all of NASCAR; he also has the unenviable task of succeeding a crew chief widely considered responsible for bringing Earnhardt’s career back from the dead over the past four seasons.
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Shortly after Letarte announced in early 2014 his plans to leave Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt at season’s end for an opportunity to enter the broadcast booth at NBC Sports, it became vividly clear to practically everyone involved — most importantly, Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt and Letarte himself — that Ives was the man for the job.
An engineering graduate of Michigan Technological University, Ives had joined Hendrick Motorsports as a mechanic in 2004 and later became the lead engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team where he worked with crew chief Chad Knaus to help Johnson win a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 to 2010.
Ives transitioned out of Hendrick in November 2012 to become the crew chief for NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Regan Smith the following season at JR Motorsports, the company that Earnhardt co-owns with Rick Hendrick. Over two full seasons as a JR Motorsports crew chief, Ives guided Smith to a third-place points finish and then led rookie Chase Elliott to a three-win season capped by a championship.
So when the time came to name a replacement for Letarte at Hendrick, the decision wasn’t particularly difficult.
"Greg was our No. 1 choice," Hendrick said. "This is a talented guy who already has a terrific rapport with Dale Jr. and is a fit with the organization. He and Chad had a lot of success together, and all of our crew chiefs think the world of him and what he’s accomplished. Greg’s proven that he can win races, and he has all the tools to do big things."
While Ives has a more head-down, quiet, engineer-type personality that he acknowledges is much different from the ultra-gregarious, fast-talking Letarte, the two men share at least one important trait.
Just as Letarte never seemed fazed by the inevitably intense scrutiny and extra demands of being the crew chief for the sport’s now 12-time most popular driver, Ives likewise shows no signs of letting the pressure get to him.
"He’s got a tough mental attitude," Earnhardt said. "I think that he focuses real hard on his work, and I don’t think he really will be too affected by anything on the outside. It will be interesting. I just look forward to getting in there and seeing how we communicate. … I feel like we’re kind of starting from scratch here at Daytona and trying to build that communication and trust and starting to understand how we can talk and communicate and work together. That’s going to be real important for us."
As for all the extra attention that comes with making pit calls for a driver whose popularity even transcends the sport, Ives doesn’t plan on being bothered by any of it. That’s just not his personality.
"If you go into the job thinking that your driver puts more pressure on you than another, then you are not really focused on the job at hand," he said. "The job I interviewed for when I started racing at 5 years old was winning races. It didn’t matter if I was in the car, my brother, my nephew and now these big famous names like Regan Smith, Chase, Jimmie and Dale. My focus is not on who is driving my cars, but how they perform when they do it."
Ives, of course, would like nothing better than to begin his first season with Earnhardt the way Letarte began his last one: celebrating in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.
"To be able to that two years in a row for him is something that would be great for him as a driver, for Mr. Hendrick as his team owner and for me as his crew chief," Ives said.
But more importantly than that, Ives wants to help Earnhardt ascend NASCAR’s highest mountain by finally winning a Sprint Cup Series championship while time still remains to do it. At age 40, Earnhardt likely has fewer driving days ahead of him than he does behind him. Cognizant of this, Ives believes there’s no time to relax and ease into their relationship.
"It just means that I’ve got to stay aggressive," he said. "I’ve got to stay true to the roots that got me where I am right now. That’s the conversation we had in the offseason. My job is to be aggressive, to get you out of your comfort zone, to make you do things that you’re not wanting to necessarily do all the time, or have feels that you never felt before (with the car). That’s my job to make that happen."
At the same time, Ives doesn’t want to get so focused on the big picture that he loses sight of his primary responsibility: making Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet go fast.
"As far as his career, I don’t focus on that," Ives said. "I focus on what we can do today to make our cars better for tomorrow, and the more I try to look forward to Homestead or four years from now, I’m just going to miss out on opportunities to make things happen for me now."
However, Ives has considered the very real possibility that he could be Earnhardt’s last crew chief in NASCAR’s top series.
"I’m looking forward to being his last crew chief and him retiring after four championships," Ives said.
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