REID SPENCER/NASCAR WIRE SERVICE — To say 2016 will be a year of enormous change in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing is to understate the issue.
NASCAR is rolling out a new competition package in its foremost division, one that features lower downforce. The aim is to make the Sprint Cup cars more difficult to drive, which in turn will put more control in the hands of the drivers.
You’ll see dramatic changes on the track. Chase Elliott, a 20-year-old rookie, succeeds icon Jeff Gordon behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, as Gordon moves to the Fox Sports broadcast booth.
You’ll see the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford at every race track on the Sprint Cup schedule for the first time in forever, with Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Blaney driving the legendary red-and-white Fusion.
You’ll see a new manufacturer’s label on the No. 78 Furniture Row car, as the team moves to Toyota and an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing from Richard Childress Racing and a long-time association with Chevrolet.
But maybe the most intriguing changes in 2016 won’t be on the track at all. They’ll be visible on top of the various Sprint Cup pit boxes—and you’ll need a chart to keep them straight.
As the sport kicks off the season with the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, which starts on Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, here’s a quick rundown of the host of crew chief moves for 2016.
Two of the most visible changes come at Stewart-Haas Racing, where rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz takes over Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet from departed Chad Johnston, and Billy Scott replaces Daniel Knost on Danica Patrick’s No. 10, as Patrick starts her fourth full season in Sprint Cup racing with her third crew chief.
For Bugarewicz, the move is a significant step up from his role as race engineer for Kevin Harvick. Though he toiled in relative anonymity during Harvick’s 2014 championship season, Bugarewicz won’t be able to escape the spotlight as he sets up the car and makes the calls during Stewart’s farewell to Sprint Cup racing.
Similarly, Scott will draw considerable attention as the pit boss on Patrick’s car, as Sprint Cup’s only current female driver tries to crack the top 20 in the series standings. Scott is the third alumnus of now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing to take a crew chief’s job at Stewart-Haas (Johnston and Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief, are the others).
Childers is the linchpin of SHR’s crew chief corps, and his past association with Scott at MWR should ease the latter’s transition to Patrick’s high-profile ride.
“Obviously I know Rodney’s mentality, as we worked closely together for a couple of years on the No. 55 in particular,” Scott says. “Just seeing the success he’s had and knowing what his approach is to things and his philosophies and understanding that it’s been proven here – it will work.
“We have a lot of similar approaches to the car setup and the teams and stuff, and it proves that there’s a good foundation here, and that’s something to build off of.”
Another product of the MWR crew chief incubator is Brian Pattie, who takes over for Matt Puccia on Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing. The entire RFR organization has underperformed for the past two seasons, and the new ideas Pattie brings from outside the team certainly should help, as Roush tries to straighten out its engineering woes.
Pattie’s hiring moves Puccia to the No. 6 Ford of Trevor Bayne, who won the 2011 Daytona 500 in his second career start and hasn’t posted a top five since then.
The organization that won the 2015 series championship with driver Kyle Busch—Joe Gibbs Racing—has made crew chief changes on two of its four Cup teams. Dave Rogers moves from Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota to the No. 19 of Carl Edwards, as Edwards’ 2015 crew chief, Darian Grubb, returns to Hendrick Motorsports to oversee production of that team’s race cars.
Mike Wheeler, who has developed a strong and successful relationship with Hamlin during the driver’s sporadic XFINITY Series starts, will make the calls on the No. 11 pit box in 2016.
A disappointing sophomore season for 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson precipitated a change on the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The aforementioned Chad Johnston was hired to replace Chris Heroy, who had spent four years on the car, two with Larson and two with Juan Pablo Montoya.
Heroy, however, quickly landed elsewhere, moving to the No. 44 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports (which used to be No. 9) to bring veteran stability to the team of first-year Sprint Cup driver Brian Scott, who takes over the ride from Sam Hornish Jr.
Another move on the crew chief merry-go-round that may be overlooked in the early going is the positioning at Front Row Motorsports of Roush Fenway veteran Bob Osborne to spearhead the rookie campaign of 2015 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher.
Osborne called the shots for Bayne last year, after a three-year hiatus from the pit box, but prior to working with Bayne, he made his mark with Edwards, engineering 18 Cup victories during that driver’s tenure at RFR.
As Buescher is being groomed for an eventual return to Roush Fenway, the addition of Osborne to the Front Row roster should help elevate the performance of the entire organization.