By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Nobody thought Mike Ford would be out of work very long when Joe Gibbs Racing dismissed the crew chief in December after a disappointing 2011 season with Denny Hamlin.
Because JGR still owed him for the final year on his contract, Ford was in no rush to climb back atop a pit box. And if he had to spend the entire season sitting at home, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
But crew chiefs don't sit idle for very long in NASCAR, and that was proven once again Monday when Richard Petty Motorsports pulled Ford back into the Sprint Cup garage. After just nine races, the team decided the pairing of Aric Almirola and crew chief Greg Erwin wasn't a fit, and Ford was hired to take over the iconic No. 43 team.
"Mike Ford is an elite crew chief who knows what it takes to be a winner at this level," team owner Richard Petty said. "We're fortunate that he was available and that we could reach a deal to bring him over to our place. We've taken a lot of big steps at Richard Petty Motorsports in the past year, and I think this might be that one piece of the puzzle we were missing."
It's only a quarter of the way through the grueling NASCAR schedule, and maybe in a different era, slumping teams could still hope for a midseason turnaround.
Nobody has that luxury anymore, so when it becomes evident that something has to change in an effort to save the season, the crew chief is usually the first guy to go.
So it was Erwin to get the first hook of the 2012 season, and he didn't even make it a year with the Petty organization.
He had been let go as Greg Biffle's crew chief last July, and was snapped up rather quickly at RPM, which paired him with AJ Allmendinger. Everybody seemed happy, and then Allmendinger got an offseason offer to move to Penske Racing. He took the job, and RPM had to quickly find a new driver.
They settled on Almirola, who had 35 previous Sprint Cup starts but none since the last five races of the 2010 season. The results have been sub-par — Almirola has one top-10 finish and is currently 23rd in the standings.
It wasn't good enough.
"It's a goal of the 43 team to make the Chase this year, and I think Mike's experience and knowledge can help get us there," Almirola said. "We've got some ground to make up, but I think we can do it."
That's the present-day mentality in NASCAR, where claiming one of the 12 spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is the new measuring point for a successful season.
Drivers and crews want to be in the Chase so they can race for the championship, but for team owners, getting one of those slots is often enough to placate the sponsor. Being part of the Chase ensures maximum exposure over the final 10 weeks of the season, and those cars and drivers consistently overshadow the other 31 in the field.
Some have suggested that the pressure to make the Chase is partly to blame for the caution-free racing over the last month. Drivers have to constantly think about the big picture, and maybe aren't taking the chances they once did out of fear of it hurting too much in the standings.
"Racing has changed because right now, there is so much emphasis put on the almighty point, that we live and die by that one point," Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler said last weekend.
"Racing is segregated right now between making the Chase and not making the Chase. You can't take as many chances now as you could seven or eight years ago, because if you finish 30th or worse, it's going to take you three or four races to get back in that Chase contention."
It remains to be seen if Ford, who guided Hamlin to 17 victories and a spot in the Chase all six seasons they were paired together, can get Almirola into one of those coveted 12 spots. But RPM felt the team had to go for it, and the longer they waited, the harder it would be to make up ground.
It's highly doubtful that RPM will be the only organization to make a change over the next few weeks. Every team sitting outside the top 15 right now — save for maybe the Hendrick Motorsports' crews of Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne — have to be taking a good long look at personnel and wondering if new blood is needed.
Jamie McMurray, winner of three races in 2010, hasn't done anything since and is 18th in the standings, and Jeff Burton, who has publicly said his Richard Childress Racing team needs to get better, is sitting 20th in points — behind Mark Martin, who has run only seven of the nine races this year.
Regan Smith, who won Darlington last season, can't be pleased he's currently 25th in the standings as he closes in on the anniversary of his only career Cup victory. And right below him is 2004 series champion Kurt Busch, who has just one top-10 finish this season with underfunded Phoenix Racing.
Nobody can stand pat for long, and RPM's hiring of Ford showed that silly season has officially started.
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