Commentary

Drivers and crew chiefs often argue like husbands and wives

The heated exchange between Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne Sunday at Pocono wasn't the first between a driver and crew chief ... and it won't be the last, writes David Newton.

Updated: August 15, 2008, 11:26 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Dale EarnhardtAP Photo/John RaouxNo matter how much bickering goes on between driver and crew chief, winning solves everything.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Darrell Waltrip was red-faced mad as he passed crew chief Larry Carter on the way to his car prior to qualifying at California Speedway.

He'd nearly busted an axle during a final practice because of a setup change that left the front end too low. He'd nearly busted a blood vessel throwing his helmet before heading to the motor coach to cool off.

"He was getting ready for me to do my usual, tell him where everybody was at, and I didn't say anything," Carter recalled of that 2000 race. "He said, 'Well, you've got nothing to say? I said, 'Nah, not really.' He said, 'Well, if I was the crew chief and my driver came in and was mad like that I would probably go try to find out what the problem was.'

"I said something like, 'Well, I know what the problem was. I didn't need you to tell me.' He then told me he was going to take me out behind the barn with a hickory switch when we got done and straighten me out."

A short while later, after Waltrip qualified seventh, Carter asked the three-time Sprint Cup champion when they were going to the barn.

"He was, 'Oh, great job!'" Carter said. "Running good always fixes everything."

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/John RaouxJimmie Johnson, right, says he argues all the time with crew chief Chad Knaus. "He's my second wife in some ways," JJ says.

No, the heated confrontation between Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne over Osborne's decision to pit while in the lead with rain on the way last weekend at Pocono Raceway wasn't the first between driver and crew chief.

Such incidents happen every weekend.

"The difference there is you normally don't stop the race and let the driver go get in the crew chief's face," Waltrip said with a laugh, recalling what happened when the race was red-flagged with 69 laps remaining. "We hear all kinds of bantering on the radio. You just don't get to see it often.

"If you could stop the race when the crew chiefs and drivers are in those radio communications and let the driver get out of his car and go to the pit box you'd see some very scary things."

Like the Waltrip-Carter confrontation, the one between Edwards and Osborne had a happy ending. Edwards rallied from 22nd for his fourth win of the season, tightening the bonus point differential on Kyle Busch.

He and Osborne left the track with their relationship intact, and perhaps a bit more respect for each other than they had prior to the dispute.

"We may get mad again, but in the end we come to terms about what we want to do and how to do it," Osborne said.

Hardly a driver or crew chief in the garage hasn't faced a similar situation. Radio exchanges during a race often are like a husband and wife arguing over the checkbook.

Even Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, arguably the best driver-crew chief tandem in the garage, have their moments.

"Oh, we argue all the time," said Johnson, who has won the past two Cup titles. "He's my second wife in some ways."

The best combinations agree to disagree. That's why Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli have survived 10 sometimes-tumultuous years together. That's why Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. remain friends despite constant bickering.

That's why Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser were such a force until Reiser was reassigned to general manager this season.

"Sometimes, he'll say something and I'll look at him funny like, 'That doesn't make sense,'" Kenseth said of Reiser a few years ago. "And he'll look at me the same way. Yeah, maybe we disagree sometimes about what to do with the car.

"But that's a good thing. If we thought the same thing about the car all the time, if I didn't have somebody with different ideas, I could do it by myself."

Then things really could get scary.

"I'm pretty sure if they started letting the drivers call the races from the seat they won't be happy with the results," Carter said.

Different reactions
Silence.

That's all Carter heard from driver Jamie McMurray over the final 60 laps at Pocono.

"He was mad because we decided to run this fuel-mileage game," Carter said. "It looks like it's going to rain and he's thinking, 'Man, they've put me all the way to the back and there's clouds moving in over Turn 2. I am screwed here.'

"He was [ticked]. If I was in his shoes I would have been [ticked] too. When the race was over and we'd finished ninth he said, 'Man, I was [ticked] off at you, but you did the right thing and made the right calls."

Not all drivers respond the way Edwards did. Some express their displeasure like McMurray by simply saying nothing.

"Yeah, I get mad, but then you're sitting there and think, 'Maybe they're seeing something I'm not,'" McMurray said. "A lot of times, when you hear their side of the story you go, 'I get it.'"

If we thought the same thing about the car all the time, if I didn't have somebody with different ideas, I could do it by myself.

-- Matt Kenseth

McMurray and Carter work well together because both are nonconfrontational. McMurray tried to work with Osborne a few years ago and things fell apart.

"I know why Carl gets mad at Bob," he said. "Hell, I got mad at Bob. Bob was very dry and blunt. When Bob feels like he's thought everything out, if you start second-guessing him he'll snap back at you."

That happened a couple of years ago at Kansas. McMurray responded by asking team owner Jack Roush for a new crew chief.

"I don't need somebody to yell at me when I'm racing," he said. "That doesn't motivate me. Maybe for Carl, that is good for him. That's why certain drivers work better with certain crew chiefs.

"I remember when Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Jr. split because Earnhardt thought he didn't like that. Then he found out he did."

Earnhardt and Eury split following the 2004 season at Dale Earnhardt Inc. It didn't take long for them to realize they fed off the bickering and constant questioning of each other, so they were reunited for the final 10 races of 2005.

They've been together ever since.

"It's fun," Eury recently said of the radio exchanges with NASCAR's most popular driver. "There's a lot of emotion on both sides of it. … I think everybody at Hendrick Motorsports gets a kick out of it because they've never heard it, and they think it's comical.

"But we get our points across. We know what each other's talking about."

They often get fighting mad at each other. When that happens Earnhardt said they'll go to the hauler, close the door and "just go at it."

"And no matter what is said during a race, we leave it at the track," Eury said.

Waltrip understands, but believes Earnhardt and Eury could be more productive if they cut down on the arguments.

"One of the things Tony Jr. struggles with sometimes is the lack of confidence Dale Jr. kind of relates to him when he makes the call," he said. "When Junior says he's not sure that's the right thing to do, those are the worst kind of scenarios.

"Then you've got doubt in your mind and you're not sure what to do. You can't win races arguing with the crew chief -- except on Sunday when you stop the race and get you out of the car."

Driver knows best
Robbie Loomis had yet to sit on the pit box for his first race as Richard Petty's crew chief in 1990 when the seven-time Cup champion offered words of advice he's never forgotten.

"He said, 'We're going to give you this opportunity, but let me set you straight on something right now,'" Loomis recalled. "He said, 'If I come down pit road and you call two tires and I want four, I'm not leaving that damn pit 'til you put four tires on it. So you decide how long you want the pit stop to be.'"

Those words were in the back of Loomis' mind when he called for Jeff Gordon to make a gas-only pit stop in the closing laps of the 2001 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I heard him come over the radio and it sounded like god talking to me," Loomis said. "He said, 'We're not going to win if you don't give me four tires.' And he was real adamant about it."

So Loomis compromised, calling for a two-tire stop that got Gordon off pit road first and into Victory Lane.

"I knew Jeff well enough that if I had not given any tires to him they'd have passed us on both sides," said Loomis, who helped Gordon to his fourth Cup title that season. "I knew by giving him two it would keep his head in the game enough that we could still get the job done.

"Sometimes it's a lot more confusing for the driver to see the big picture."

That the crew chief's salary typically is one-tenth of what the driver earns puts him in the same position as an NBA coach telling a $25 million-a-year player to pass instead of shoot.

"The driver has the ultimate control because they're the ones on the steering wheel," said Pat Tryson, the crew chief for 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. "You can tell them to come, and if they don't want to come, they won't. If you want them to stay out and they want to come, they come on pit road."

For the most part, the driver listens to the crew chief.

"Drivers are pretty self-important sometimes," said ESPN analyst Andy Petree, who helped Dale Earnhardt win two of his seven titles. "But the crew chief gets paid to make those calls. No matter how much the driver makes the crew chief should be the one to make it [the call]."

Carter agreed.

"The bottom line is those guys don't have the access to the information that the guys on the box do," he said. "Generally we're in a little better position to make the calls. Sometimes it's the wrong one."

Sometimes it's the right one and the driver simply doesn't listen. Such was the case when Petree once told Ken Schrader not to let Ernie Irvan wreck him on the closing lap at Martinsville.

"They crashed in Turn 4 and we finished like 18th," Petree said. "I've never been so mad. Him and me were virtually going at it in the truck. If Schrader hadn't been so tired we probably would have.

"Those things happen."

Only they seldom happen in front of the public eye as was the case with Osborne and Edwards.

"Fans get to hear every week disagreements on the radio scanners," Waltrip said. "Sunday was a great opportunity for fans to see what it actually would be like if you could get out of a car and go talk to your crew chief during a race."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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