NASCAR is a team sport. While the driver is the one who gets the trophy, it’s often the result of hours of work at the shop by multiple members of a race team, and the one who leads them all is the crew chief. A good crew chief pairing can be the difference between a good season and a bad season, and some pairings have gone on to do some incredible things.
However, just like some drivers, some crew chiefs have run into bad luck when trying to win races and championships. Some iconic crew chiefs have not found a way to win championships despite their prowess atop the pit box. Who are the best crew chiefs to never have their driver hoist NASCAR’s biggest prize.
5. Steve Hmiel
Stats: 16 Wins, 84 Top 5s, 146 Top 10s, 20 Poles, 290 Races
Best Points Finish: 2nd in 1994 with Mark Martin
Steve Hmiel was Jack Roush’s right-hand man during the early days of Roush Racing. After spending three seasons as the crew chief for Terry Labonte and Sterling Marlin, winning two races, Hmiel moved to Roush serving as the team manager. Eventually, Hmiel was back on the pit box for the 1992 season with Mark Martin, winning 13 more races between 1992 and 1995.
With Hmiel being Martin’s crew chief, it is easy to see how this turned out. Martin was a great driver with a great team, but people like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were impossible to top during this time. Hmiel was one of the architects behind one of NASCAR’s top teams, but he could never get that elusive championship either as a crew chief or an executive.
4. Waddell Wilson
Stats: 19 Wins, 91 Top 5s, 138 Top 10s, 26 Poles, 3 Daytona 500 Wins, 246 Races
Best Points Finish: 2nd (1981 with Bobby Allison AND 1991 with Ricky Rudd)
The first time a driver went 200 mph in qualifying for the Daytona 500 in 1983, Cale Yarborough was the driver and Waddell Wilson was his crew chief. Now, the story continues that Yarborough crashed his car on the second lap, so they had to use a Hardee’s show car to run in the race. Wilson and crew tuned that show car, and they won the 1983 Daytona 500.
Unfortunately a championship was always out of reach primarily because of Wilson being crew chief for mainly part-time entrants such as Yarborough, Buddy Baker, and Benny Parsons in the 1980s. Wilson came closest to a championship in 1981 with Bobby Allison, but they were edged by Darrell Waltrip by 53 points. Wilson did get one more second place points finish with Ricky Rudd in 1991, but it was a 195 margin to Dale Earnhardt in first that time.
3. Robin Pemberton (26 wins, best points finish of 2nd)
Stats: 26 Wins, 158 Top 5s, 271 Top 10s, 39 Poles, 529 Races
Best Points Finish: 2nd in 1990 with Mark Martin
Before his “Have at it boys” days as NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton was a race-winning crew chief for Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Mark Martin, and Rusty Wallace. Imagine being a crew chief for a trio of NASCAR Hall of Famers. In between then, Pemberton was Kyle Petty’s crew chief during Kyle’s two best Cup Series seasons in 1992 and 1993.
Pemberton was also the crew chief for two of the most infamous penalties in NASCAR history. He was the crew chief for Richard Petty’s 198th win at Charlotte in 1983, where Richard was fined $35,000 and docked 104 points for an oversized motor and left side tires on the right side of the car. However, the other penalty was cost Pemberton a championship.
In 1990, after Martin won the second race of the season at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt pointed out an illegal carburetor spacer to officials after the race. The result, a 46 point penalty and a $40,000 fine. Martin would finish second in points in 1990, losing the championship…by only 26 points. If that penalty does not happen, Martin is a champion and so is Pemberton.
2. Larry McReynolds
Stats: 23 Wins, 123 Top 5s, 211 Top 10s, 19 Poles, 471 Races
Best Points Finish: 3rd with Davey Allison in 1991 and 1992
No one went through quite as much as a crew chief as Larry McReynolds had to go through between 1992 and 1994. From Davey Allison’s multiple injuries in 1992 to losing the championship with an accident late in the 1992 Hooters 500 to Allison’s tragic death in 1993.
In late 1993, Ernie Irvan took over Allison’s old ride. In 1994, Irvan, while second in points, nearly lost his life in a practice crash at Michigan. Regardless of how it effected championship aspirations, McReynolds was put through a lot during these three years.
McReynolds later became the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt in 1997. While the results were not great, McReynolds had one thing he got while Earnhardt’s crew chief. McReynolds was on the pit box for the 1998 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 win.
1. Buddy Parrott
Stats: 47 Wins, 139 Top 5s, 208 Top 10s, 25 Poles, 1990 Daytona 500 Winner, 513 Races
Best Points Finish: 2nd (1979 with Darrell Waltrip and 1993 with Rusty Wallace)
Buddy Parrott was the crew chief for two of NASCAR’s iconic moments. He was Richard Petty’s crew chief in 1984 for the 200th win of Petty’s storied NASCAR career. Parrott was also the crew chief for one of NASCAR’s greatest upsets at the 1990 Daytona 500 with Derrike Cope.
The closest Parrot came to a championship was early in his career with Darrell Waltrip. Parrott and Waltrip lost the championship to Richard Petty by only 11 points, then a NASCAR record for smallest margin of Championship victory. Parrott also led Rusty Wallace to his best statistical season in 1993, but once again, finished second.
Parrott won an astounding 47 races as a Cup Series crew chief. How he never won a championship especially considering the caliber of drivers and teams he worked with is mind-boggling.
Honorable Mentions: Steve Addington, Steve Letarte, Tony Eury Sr.