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WHY DID SO MANY CREW CHIEFS GET FIRED THIS OFF-SEASON?
ONE YEAR ago Mike Ford was widely considered by his peers to be one of the top crew chiefs in NASCAR. Sitting atop Denny Hamlin's pit box in 2010, Ford guided the number 11 team to a series-best eight wins and a second-place finish in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson. Leaving Homestead that November, Ford's future looked exceptionally sunny.
It was just a mirage. Thirteen months later team owner Joe Gibbs fired Ford after Hamlin finished 2011 ninth in points with only one win. Ford's dismissal reaffirmed a new truth about NASCAR: At a time when sponsorship dollars are hard to find, owners are quick to make changes to a struggling team. If a sponsor such as FedEx, which shells out around $30 million annually to back Hamlin, expresses unhappiness with its investment, an owner will do everything he can to placate that sponsor. The first one to be let go after a disappointing season is usually the crew chief, who doesn't have the star power or the unique skills of a top driver. "You cannot afford to lose sponsors," says Jeff Gordon. "They ultimately make the decisions."
Ford was one of six high-profile crew chiefs to be axed or reassigned this off-season, along with Frank Kerr (who was with Bobby Labonte), Gil Martin (Kevin Harvick), Brian Pattie (Juan Pablo Montoya), Shane Wilson (Clint Bowyer) and Darian Grubb, who was with Tony Stewart and has signed with Hamlin's team. "More now than ever, NASCAR is a bottom-line business," says Stewart. In other words, win or get lost.
WILL NASCAR'S LATEST EFFORT TO GO GREEN RUN SMOOTHLY?
THIS SEASON, FOR THE FIRST TIME, NASCAR SPRINT CUP cars won't be using carburetors. Instead, as part of a green initiative, the car engines will employ electronic fuel injection (EFI). The no-carb diet will make the engines run more efficiently by controlling the fuel mixture through electronics. Every passenger car sold in the United States has featured EFI since 1990, but not all drivers are fans. Brad Keselowski, for one, said it changed how his car drove when he tested it late last season, labeling it "a disaster."
Other drivers were happy with the new technology and believe it won't have an impact on how the car handles. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also tested EFI last year, said, "It felt exactly like the carburetor car." What's certain is that the role of engineers in NASCAR will become even more significant with fuel injection. Why? Because it will take some serious expertise to interpret the amount of data generated by the engines' sensors. This favors—no surprise—the deep-pocketed teams.