A day after Bob Osborne stepped down as Carl Edwards’ crew chief, the consensus is that, while Osborne said the move was due to his own health concerns, it was a move that should have happened before now (via Sporting News).
Not many other people are asking the question that should precede that consensus:
How did this happen? How did the performance of one of NASCAR’s best driver-crew chief relationships get so bad that this change was needed?
In no other form of competition is there as strong of a coach-player-type bond as in racing between a crew chief and his driver.
Edwards and Osborne have worked well together for almost 10 years now, something that’s almost unheard of nowadays in NASCAR, where it seems the crew chief turnover from year to year is almost as big a story as the driver turnover. The pair won 18 races between 2004 and 2012 and finished second in points twice.
But, unless your last name is Johnson or Knaus—and even they’ve had spells were there was talk of a split—very few driver-crew chief combos last forever.
The driver-crew chief relationship is built on trust and communication. When a driver is struggling with the handling of his car, he has to be able to effectively communicate what the problem is.
Conversely, the driver has to be able to trust the crew chief to make the right decisions on pit stops and adjustments to keep the car competitive.
When a driver and a crew chief are on the same page, the results will show as such. When they aren’t, the results will show that too.
Take Dale Earnhardt Jr. for example.
Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. were fantastic together in their later years at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and their first year at Hendrick Motorsports.
But, somewhere along the way, the cars stopped being competitive and Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. began to have serious chemistry issues—sometimes erupting in heated exchanges over the radio during races.
After a pairing with crew chief Lance McGrew provided two more years of similar results, Earnhardt Jr. was paired with Steve Letarte.
The pair has learned to communicate on the same level and developed a trust in each other that has rejuvenated Earnhardt Jr.'s career. A year and a half into their relationship, they have gotten back to victory lane and sit second in the Cup Series standings.
Look at last year. Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford had been perennial championship contenders and narrowly missed the crown in 2010.
But, as with Edwards and Osborne, something was never quite right in 2011. Their relationship deteriorated as the bad finishes mounted and, the departure of Ford—who now heads Aric Almirola’s team at Richard Petty Motorsports—was all but certain after 2010.
After Matt Kenseth split with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser after the 2007 season, he failed to win a race in 2008 and went through two crew chiefs before finding a successful pairing with Jimmy Fennig.
Kyle Busch won eight races with Steve Addington as his crew chief in 2008 but, the next season, that partnership had soured so much that Addington was released with three races still to run in 2009.
Every driver or crew chief mentioned is great at what they do. But, putting a driver and crew chief together is a complex marriage that has to succeed at every level.
For Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne, that marriage seemed to have run its course.
They aren’t the first great driver and crew chief to come apart, and they won’t be the last.