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From Crewman to Crew Chief: How Some of NASCAR’s Most Famous Crew Chiefs Made their Name

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The path to the top of the pit box can be extensive. However, not every crew chief found their way there by plan. Some crew chiefs began as racers others as tire changers. So, what are some of these stories? Here’s a look at five crew chiefs who took the long and sometimes intriguing route to the role that made them iconic to drivers and fans alike.

Paul Wolfe

On the path to becoming a top-tier NASCAR crew chief, some individuals may almost make it to the top of the sport behind the wheel. Longtime Team Penske crew chief Paul Wolfe is an excellent example of finding new life as a crew chief after making a run at a career behind the wheel.

A native of Milford, New York, Wolfe’s father, Charlie, raced on the northeast modified scene. Wolfe began racing at a young age, and after graduating high school, he chased his dream to the heart of NASCAR in North Carolina.  Wolfe began working at Joe Gibbs Racing in the late 90s, eventually leading him to race in the NASCAR Busch North Series, a predecessor to the current ARCA Menards Series East. His 2000 campaign consisted of 11 races in a car fielded by himself; of those 11 races, Wolfe qualified for 10 and had a best finish of fifth at New Hampshire. Wolfe would continue to field his own Chevrolets till 2002. He amassed six top fives, 11 top tens, and two poles in those three seasons.

These limited starts caught the eye of the Dodge camp and Tommy Baldwin Racing, leading to a 15-race schedule across three series in 2003. This schedule included two starts in the then-Busch Grand National Series, with 12 starts in the Busch North Series making up the bulk of the schedule. Wolfe would have 4 top tens in those 12 starts and make his Busch Series debut in the 2003 Stacker 200 at Dover, starting 33rd and finishing 16th. Wolfe made three more starts for TBR in 2004. This was a part of the almost forgotten Hungry Drivers Racing Program at TBR, a competition between three up-and-coming drivers looking for a full-time ride. Wolfe would eventually be set as the driver for 2005, but the team was sold to Evernham Motorsports before the 2005 season.

Entering 2005, Wolfe started the season, but after a DNQ at NASCAR’s maiden race at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Mexico,  Evernham’s Cup Series regulars began to take over driving duties in the car. After this, Wolfe would make four more starts in the car before moving over to FitzBradshaw Racing for five races in the back half of the season. Without a consistent ride, this would end Wolfe’s time behind the wheel, and he would find himself working back in the shop.

Wolfe’s abilities wouldn’t go unappreciated, and he would make his first crew chief appearance in Mexico City in 2006 on the box for Carlos Contreras and FitzBradshaw Racing. He would continue working for the team until 2007 before joining Braun Racing in 2008. In 2010, Wolfe took his first step toward the legacy he has today, signing on as the Crew Chief for Brad Keselowski for the 2010 Nationwide Series Season.

As you may know, Wolfe and Keselowski won the championship that season, took on the Cup Series in 2011, and then won that championship in 2012. The combination won 29 races in nine seasons together and finished in the top 10 in points seven times. In 2020, a crew chief shake-up at Penske landed Wolfe with 2018 Cup Champion Joey Logano. The pair would take three seasons to win their first championship together in 2022. Through 2023, Wolfe and Logano won nine races.

Rodney Childers

When looking at crew chiefs who had a competitive life behind the wheel, one who cannot be overlooked is Rodney Childers. Childers was born and raised in the heart of stock car racing culture in Mooresville, North Carolina. Like many modern drivers, Childers cut his teeth racing late models in the World Karting Association.

Childers is an example of someone who may not have been given the shot they deserved. On his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download, Childers’ High School friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks highly of how skilled Childers was behind the wheel of his late model. Childers was a regular at Tri-County Motor Speedway in the late 90’s.

With such endorsements, it’s hard to believe that Childers never reached the levels many with similar backgrounds have. The only NASCAR National Series start Childers ever made was a Busch Series race in 2000 at Myrtle Beach Speedway for Jay Robinson, where Childers would finish last after a lap 71 crash involving six cars.

Childers hung his helmet up in 2003 and stepped into the race shop. He found his way to the Jasper Motorsports number 77 car driven by Dave Blaney. In this position, Childers worked his way up to car chief and would remain there until moving to MB2 Motorsports to work as car chief for Scott Riggs. This would not last long, as Childers was tabbed to become the crew chief for Riggs at the midpoint of the season, a move that would quickly show statistical improvement for the fledgling team. Eventually, Childers would follow the driver and sponsor to Evernham Motorsports.

Childers remained with Evernham until 2009 when he joined the up-and-coming Michael Waltrip Racing. That season, he earned his first victory with driver David Reutimann in a rain-shortened Coke 600 and won twice more with MWR, once again with Reutimann in 2010 and with Brian Vickers in 2013.

As most fans know, 2014 was a turnaround year for Childers. He would depart MWR and head to Stewart-Haas Racing to become the crew chief for the newly signed Kevin Harvick. The two worked well together, winning the second race of the season and, by November, hoisting the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Over the past decade, this duo has become iconic, winning 37 races in 10 seasons, including a nine-win campaign in 2020, boasting an average finish of 7.3.

With Kevin Harvick retiring after the 2023 season, it seems Childers’ career has come full circle. In 2021, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his late model driver, Josh Berry, a shot at a part-time Xfinity Series schedule. Berry responded with two wins, earning a full-time ride with JR Motorsports, where after two seasons, Berry got the call to fill the spot Kevin Harvick was leaving open. Could it be because his friend Rodney Childers never got a chance, Dale Jr. has opened the door for more southeastern short track drivers to have a chance to make it to the top?

Jimmy Fennig

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the then Roush Racing hosted a deadly lineup of NASCAR Cup Series regulars and developmental drivers. From 1997 to 2005, Jack Roush’s Fords had 71 wins, 335 top fives, 586 top tens, and two NASCAR Cup Series championships. In that time, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch accounted for 28 of those wins, 113 of those top fives, and one championship. So, what is the corresponding factor for these two NASCAR legends? The man on the pit box, Jimmy Fennig. 

Before his fame as a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief, Fennig grew up in the Midwest. While Fennig’s route to being a crew chief wasn’t the longest, it took some time to become the legend of the garage area he came to be known as. He first worked in NASCAR in 1984 with Bobby Allison and the legendary number 22 of DiGard Racing. However, Fennig would soon return to the short-track scene as a crew chief.

In the 1980s, the American Speed Association was known as the premiere level of short-track racing in the United States. The series constantly had highly regarded drivers pass through its ranks, such as Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle, and the Wallace Brothers. One driver who used the series as a platform was three-time national champion Mark Martin. Martin, who won the 1980 ASA National Championship, had transitioned to the NASCAR Cup Series in 1981. Mark made quality runs from 1981 to 1983. However, after 1983, Mark found himself without a ride and returned to ASA. After the 1984 ASA season, Mark needed a crew chief for the following year, and Jimmy Fennig answered the call.

In 1986, Mark and Jimmy won the ASA National Championship and earned another shot in the Cup series, and for Fennig, this time, he would be the crew chief. The duo would make five starts that season with an average finish of 21.8. Ultimately, this got the attention of Bobby Allison, who Fennig would join at Stavola Brothers Racing for the 1987 season. Fennig would score his first win as a crew chief with Allison at the Firecracker 400 that year and be a part of Allison’s third and final Daytona 500 win in 1988. Despite early success, it would take several years before Fennig became the legendary crew chief he would become. From 1989 to 1996, Fennig would win no races while being on the box for drivers such as Dick Trickle, Derrike Cope, and Jimmy Spencer.

Fennig’s success began in 1997 when he was again paired with Mark Martin. Despite their 14 wins and an iconic paint scheme, the pair would come up short of a championship, and after a winless 2000 campaign, Fennig would be paired with a young Kurt Busch. Like his beginnings with Mark Martin, the two hit it off well, and ultimately, Busch and Fennig both won their first championship in 2003. Fennig would remain with Roush-Fenway racing till 2014, amassing 40 wins with other legendary names like Ragan and Edwards and guiding Matt Kenseth to give Fennig his first Daytona 500 in 2012.

Chad Knaus

Much like Jimmy Fening, Chad Knaus grew up in the Midwest in the town of Rockford, Illinois. Knaus’s dad John was a seven-time track champion at Rockford Speedway, a track familiar to those Midwest drivers like Mark Martin and Dick Trickle. Though places like Rockford were where some drivers cut their teeth, Chad used it to grow his knowledge of what is under the car’s body. From a young age, Chad was the crew chief of his dad’s track championships at Rockford.

After graduating high school, Knaus’s first break in NASCAR came from Stanley Smith. Smith was an owner-driver in the same vein as Jimmy Means. However, Smith ran a much more limited schedule allowing him to give a young Chad Knaus a place to live and a shop to work in. The freedom this gave Knaus to work on cars would help build the reputation a young mechanic in the cup garage needed.

With a stacked resume, the young crewman found himself in an unexpected spot entering 1993. Hendrick Motorsports had just added a third car to its lineup, and up-and-coming crew chief Ray Evernham was hiring what would eventually become his rainbow warriors, and Knaus was on that list. During his time with the 24 car, Knaus would learn under Evernham while working both in the body shop and on pit road as a tire changer. As a young crew member, Knaus learned on a winning team, which was a valuable commodity, and by 1997, he had gained a valuable friendship in Evernham and the skills to work towards his next goal of becoming a crew chief.

Before the 1998 season, Knaus tried the market and found himself at the newly built Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. At DEI, Chad was the car chief on Steve Park’s now Iconic yellow Pennzoil Monte Carlo. However, two races into the season, a practice crash at Atlanta would leave Park injured, and Darrell Waltrip was called in as a pinch driver. After Park’s return, Knaus followed Waltrip to Tyler Jet Motorsports.

While Knaus hadn’t seen the same success he had seen at Hendrick, things were soon to change. In late 1999, Ray Evernham and Chrysler teamed up, intending to bring Dodge back to NASCAR by 2001. Evernham wanted Knaus for the research and development team. Things continued to get better for Knaus. He would get his first opportunity to be a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief in select starts in 2000 for Evernham Motorsport’s developmental driver Casey Atwood, along with the soon-to-be Dodge outfit at Melling Racing and their driver Stacy Compton.

These relationships led to Knaus’s first full-time crew chief job. In 2001, he would be the crew chief for Compton’s number 92 Dodge. The pair began the season by qualifying second for the Daytona 500 and later on had two poles at Talladega. Despite this speed at superspeedways, the cars didn’t perform as well as the other Dodge teams. However, once again, opportunity would rear its head for Knaus.

Jimmie Johnson was a journeyman driver who caught the eye of Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick, who were partnering to add a fourth entry to Hendrick Motorsports. With plans for Johnson to go full-time in 2002, the stars aligned for Knaus to return home to HMS. Over the next 17 seasons, the duo would post 83 wins, 225 top fives, 352 top tens, and a record-tying seven championships and two Daytona 500 victories. In 2019, Knaus’s career would come full circle, taking over the pit box of the number 24 with young driver William Byron at the helm.

In 2020, his final season as a Crew Chief, Knaus would win his 84th and final race. After retiring from the garage, Knaus took over his current position as Vice President of Competition for Hendrick Motorsports. Alongside Jimmie Johnson, Knaus was inducted into the 2024 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. His rainbow warrior pit crew uniform is displayed in the Hall of Fame alongside his Lowe’s pit box.

Ray Evernham

Before being known as the brains behind the late-nineties Jeff Gordon Rainbow Warriors, Evernham was a driver turned mechanic. Growing up in New Jersey, Evernham was in a hotspot for short track modifieds and had the itch to go racing. He saw success in the 70s and 80s racing on that scene, even making two starts in the then NASCAR Winston Modified Tour, now known as the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.

Like many racers at that level, Evernham had a knack for the mechanical side of racing. In 1983, Ray found professional work as a chassis specialist for the reborn International Race of Champions, better known as IROC. The legendary series hosted 12 drivers of different racing backgrounds competing in four races a season. The cars were built similarly to spec cars based on the Chevrolet Camaro.

Evernham continued to race in his spare time before unfortunately suffering an injury in 1991 at Flemington Speedway. Despite a few starts after the accident, Ray would find his time behind the wheel coming to the long-term end.

However, things started looking up for Ray, who now found himself in a career on the other side of pit wall. In 1989, before his injury, Ray had found himself on the pit box at the then Sears Point International Raceway for Dick Johnson. Johnson, an Australian Touring Car legend, would qualify his Thunderbird 11th before a lap 67 accident left him multiple laps behind, bringing his car home 32nd in Evernham’s inaugural race. In 1990, Evernham became crew chief at Pocono for a fellow short track racer in Wisconsin native Jim Sauter. Sauter started 34th and would finish 24th one lap down.

A well-known story from Evernham’s career was his six weeks with Alan Kulwicki Racing in 1990, which Ray left after differences encountered with the future cup champion.  While some would see this as a roadblock, it presented Evernham with an opportunity at Bill Davis Racing’s Busch Grand National Series team, thanks to his connections at Ford. In late 1990, Ray was a crew chief in the Busch Series at Rockingham for a young USAC standout, Jeff Gordon. In 1991, Gordon joined forces with Ford, driving the number one Ford for Bill Davis Racing. Thanks to Ford, Evernham and Gordon were paired together for the 1992 season, in which they would score three wins, 10 top fives, and 15 top tens. This performance caught the eye of team owner Rick Hendrick, who signed the two up to drive the now-iconic Dupont Chevrolet in 1993 and the final race of 1992.

The pair would go on to achieve 47 wins, 116 top fives, 140 top tens, and three NASCAR Cup Series Championships. In his time with the 24, Ray continued to use his knowledge of cars and, like the great crew chiefs before him, helped NASCAR shape the rule book, as was the case with the now infamous T-Rex car. Evernham would step down from the pit box after 1999 to start Evernham Motorsports with Dodge’s support. Ray’s red Dodges would be a staple in the NASCAR Cups series from 2001 till 2009, when the then Gillett Evernham Motorsports found itself part of the many mergers of Cup teams at the time, merging with Petty Enterprises.

In the time since ,Evernham has continued to work on cars and work in racing with involvement in the SRX series, and earlier this year, he acquired the rights to the former IROC series. In 2018, Ray was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy in NASCAR for years to come. Ray Evernham is the model for the winding road one can take to get to the top of a pit box and everything that can be accomplished beyond that.

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