- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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If Mark Martin was the sentimental favorite among drivers as the Chase for the Nextel Cup began, it's safe to say that Jimmy Fennig -- who's been around the circuit almost as long as Martin -- was the sentimental favorite among mechanics and crew chiefs.
So even if fans don't yet overwhelmingly accept Kurt Busch as champ, hardly anyone's disappointed that Fennig finally has a championship to call his own. He came close on three occasions while paired with Martin, but it took a switch to Busch's team in 2002 to help him reach the sport's summit.
Fennig's a man of few words, but owner Jack Roush doesn't have enough superlatives available when asked to describe the 51-year-old native of Milwaukee, Wis.
"Jimmy Fennig is an example of what a rabid dog crew chief would be if he stayed at his business for a long time and didn't get caught up in political ambitions or didn't let his head swell," Roush said. "Jimmy Fennig is the consummate crew chief. He's dedicated to his work. He's not distracted by things going on around him. He focuses on his driver and on his car and he's extraordinarily dogmatic."
Fennig keeps an even keel no matter what, a valuable trait while paired with Busch, who was extremely hyper before the two were paired after Busch struggled through his rookie season. Fennig had won 14 races while teamed with Martin, but the magic was gone and a change was apparently what both parties needed.
Martin returned to victory lane and Busch won four times in '02; proof positive that Fennig's maturity was just what Busch needed to begin capitalizing on his vast potential.
Busch is quick to pass the credit to his crew chief, saying immediately after the Homestead finale that the championship belongs to Fennig. Busch made it clear that Fennig has brought a great deal to Busch's Roush Racing team.
"This is his deal," Busch said of Fennig. "This is his program and he's the veteran crew chief that I have to listen to, but any idea that I bring up, he's willing to listen to me as well. It takes that good team communication to know what it's gonna take to build these cars, what it's gonna take to race them, and the mindset going into each race."
Not only is Fennig's personality a key, but so is his adapt-on-the-fly ability. Situations change constantly during a race, yet Fennig never seems overwhelmed. That was evident when Busch's right-front wheel broke off the car early in the finale at Homestead.
It easily could have been the end of Busch's title hopes, but Fennig calmly guided the team as it assessed the damage and kept Busch on the lead lap. In the end, the team rallied to clinch the title.
That adaptability also comes into play when track conditions change over the course of an afternoon.
"You show up with your notebook and it might say, 'Run [a particular setup],' and if he says the track is too hot and the aerodynamics have changed too greatly, he'll throw it away and adjust for that day," Busch said. "Years of experience will teach you that and that's one thing he definitely has on every other crew chief in this garage area."
The crew chief when Bobby Allison won the 1988 Daytona 500 while son Davey Allison came home second in a memorable finish, Fennig remained with Stavola Brothers Racing even after Allison suffered career-ending injuries later that season. Eventually, though, he joined Bobby Allison Motorsports and stayed there until the team shut down late in the 1996 season.
At that point, Fennig finally was convinced to join Roush Racing and see if he and Martin could recapture the magic that led them to the American Speed Association (ASA) title back in '86.
They did just that, with Martin winning four times in 1997, seven times in '98 and twice the next year. But Martin won just once in 2000 and fell to eighth in points after two seconds and a third. A winless 2001 campaign that saw Martin fall to 12th in points was enough to convince Roush to shake things up.
The results have spoken volumes both about Fennig's soothing presence and Busch's increasing maturity.
"It's just been great to be part of Jimmy Fennig's program. Jimmy organized this 97 team in his own light," Roush said. "It comes from all the good history that he had with Bobby Allison. ... To be here with Jimmy and in the doldrums when we were just getting Kurt started and brought Jimmy into the program and had Jimmy take him as a son or as a driver that was incredibly talented, that was what he considered to be worth his energy and his commitment to hang in and bring us all along has been incredible. He's built the team and he's helped Kurt advance."
Advance all the way to the championship, something Fennig long said his career would be complete without. With 27 Cup victories to his credit (two with Allison, 14 with Martin and 11 with Busch), Fennig's record speaks for itself. His peers would have thought no less of him without a championship, but now he'll truly receive the recognition he deserves, but hardly desires.
"It feels good. I always say it don't really matter because I've enjoyed myself over these years, I've won races, but today is a special day," Fennig said in the hours after winning the title. "Winning the championship, my very first championship, with Kurt Busch and Jack Roush and the Sharpie team ... I feel good about it.
"The reason I say that is because I'm fortunate enough to be doing what I love to do, and that's go racin'. That's all I did all my life, and I've been pretty successful at it. So if I didn't win the championship, I was going to walk away with a smile anyway. But, like I say, this one is going to be special to me, and hopefully I can keep doing this another 10 years, keep following Jack."
The one guarantee is that Fennig won't suddenly turn into a media darling, preferring to leave those dealings to his driver and owner. It's not that he doesn't like the press, it's just a part of the game he didn't have to deal with early in his career and he's come to like it that way.
"What got me here was Saturday night racing," Fennig said. "I'm not saying that these guys [on other teams] aren't racers, but I enjoy being around that race car and working on that race car. I've got nothing against the media, but I enjoy working on that race car, being around that race car, and making sure that once we win a race I can help the guys with anything during post-race inspection."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
6dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz