The link between driver and crew chief in NASCAR can be compared favorably to that of coach and quarterback in football.
Although the driver ultimately is responsible for his own success in any given race, the crew chief plays a critical role across a spectrum of responsibilities – car preparation, race strategy and team leadership.
It’s a complex job that is rarely static. Rules changes, car improvements and even such seemingly minor things as the aging of asphalt on speedways keep the crew chief’s head spinning. Even on road courses.
The driver-crew chief mix also is about compatibility and chemistry. Sometimes even winning drivers and top-level crew chiefs can’t make the magic happen.
Driver Ryan Blaney, relatively new to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and Jeremy Bullins, a former team engineer now the crew chief for Blaney and the No. 12 cars for team owner Roger Penske, are in their first year together at the Cup level in Penske cars after moving over this season from the Wood Brothers team (a Penske satellite).
Although it’s a new situation for them, Blaney and Bullins have history. Blaney’s first Xfinity Series race in a Penske car came at Iowa Speedway in 2012, and Bullins was the crew chief.
They barely knew each other going into that Iowa weekend, but from that point to now they’ve built a strong relationship that is showing in results. Through six races this season, Blaney is third in points (to series champions Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) and has four top-10 finishes.
Last year, with the Woods team, Blaney scored his first Cup win (at Pocono Raceway) and finished ninth in points.
It isn’t unusual for drivers and crew chiefs to disagree on all sorts of real-time racing decisions in the heat of competition. And those sometimes-tense conversations are out there for everybody with access to a radio scanner to hear.
Blaney, 24, said he almost always defers to Bullins’ point of view, largely because the crew chief can see the big picture better from his vantage point atop the pit wagon, a well-stocked race headquarters that includes television monitors.
“I trust him 100 percent,” Blaney said. “I never try to question what he does. I can give my opinions, but he has the best view of it, and I think he knows best. I trust him completely.”
Bullins, 40, had faith that Blaney could be a winning Cup driver even before they met. When there were discussions at Penske about which driver to invite to join the team’s Xfinity lineup, Bullins mentioned Blaney.
“I remember somebody asking me who I would pick, and I said I’d go get the Blaney kid,” Bullins said. “They were like, ‘Funny you said that, stay tuned.’ The next thing I know, he was driving the car.”
Bullins said Blaney impressed him in a race in the K&N Series, a feeder circuit for NASCAR’s national series.
“He went all the way to the fence and ran the top,” Bullins said. “He was the only one up there, and he was passing people like crazy. When you see somebody doing that, you get impressed. It’s usually not the best place to be, but he found a way to make it work.”
In the early days of their partnership with the Penske Xfinity team, there was give and take as they tried to find the best car setup – one that would please driver and crew chief.
“I remember early on he always wanted the car to turn better and was asking to be freed up,” Bullins said. “But the car really needed to be tighter. I remember freeing him up for a couple of runs, and it didn’t work. I made it tighter and it did.”
At another track, the opposite might have been true. It’s the sort of challenge that makes strong communication between driver and crew chief important.
“We’ve had some discussions about things like when to pit or not,” Blaney said. “We usually have kind of a set plan. But I know what he’s leaning toward even when he puts that in my hands. I usually know what he wants to do and make my decision based on that.”