The curious case of NASCAR crew chief Mike Ford

Jason Smith

Twenty-three months ago in the Phoenix desert, crew chief Mike Ford and his driver Denny Hamlin were laps away from doing the seemingly impossible: Toppling Jimmie Johnson and ending his four-year reign as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

After having led a race-high 190 laps, the No. 11 Toyota was running second with handful of laps to go. If Hamlin could maintain that position, he would enter the year's final race at Homestead with a commanding 45-point lead over Johnson.

It wasn't to be.

Ford incorrectly crunched the numbers on how much fuel his driver needed to save, and the result was Hamlin being unable to nurse his car to the finish line. So with 14 laps remaining, Ford called his driver to pit road for fuel and two right-side tires, and that decision had far-reaching consequences – not only on the 2010 championship but on Ford's career as well.

With not enough laps left in the race, Hamlin was never able to recover the track position which he lost and ended the afternoon in 12th place. Instead of putting a stranglehold on the title, Hamlin now led Johnson by just 15 points.

Immediately after the checkered flag waved, Hamlin was in disbelief. He couldn't comprehend how such a promising day turned sour so quickly, why his team was getting such poor fuel-mileage and why his crew chief hadn't fully communicated all this to him before it was too late to do anything about it.

From there, the relationship between Ford and Hamlin was never the same.

The next week, Johnson secured his fifth consecutive title and the 11 team was sent into a tailspin that it wouldn't pull out of for a full year. When the 2011 season started, the team was a shell of itself. Hamlin went from winning eight races to just one, as the once-strong relationship between driver and crew chief was beyond repair.

After the season – and just one year removed from nearly ascending the top of the NASCAR summit – Ford was out of a job, relieved of his duties by Joe Gibbs Racing.

The thinking at the time was he wouldn't be out of work for long and a prominent team would soon snatch him up. After all, he was a proven winner in the Cup Series, having been to Victory Lane 21 times as a crew chief along with six Chase appearances.

However, no phone call came and when the 2012 season rolled around, Ford was surprisingly still jobless. Eventually, an offer did come Ford's way a few months later, as Richard Petty Motorsports hired him to be the crew chief for Aric Almirola.

At the time it seemed like an ideal fit, as Ford was again tasked with guiding a young driver and tapping into the talent Almirola possessed. Ford even commented on the similarities between his previous gig and his new one.

"Part of what made this exciting to me is that the most fun I've ever had crew chiefing was the first year and a half with Denny," Ford said at the press conference announcing his hire. "That was a lot of fun because of the role that you play; you work together and you fed off each other. I see that here with Aric."

But for whatever reason, the two never jelled. In 17 races together, Almirola finished in the top 10 just once and the team lacked consistency. After the regular season finale at Richmond, RPM announced the team was implementing a crew chief swap with Ford being shifted over to work with Marcos Ambrose.

Looking at the big picture, it seemed like an ideal move. Ambrose had shown he had the talent to win races at the Cup level, while Ford had proven capable of doing the same.

The Ford-Ambrose pairing lasted all of seven races. In their brief time together, Ambrose's best finish was a 12th at Kansas with the two posting an average finish of 23.5.

And just like that, Ford found himself out on the street once again, with the news coming Monday he was being replaced immediately by Drew Blickensderfer.

How a crew chief as good as Ford goes from nearly winning a title to unemployed twice over is baffling. The best explanation for the events is that NASCAR, like all sports, is a "What have you done for me lately?" business. And unfortunately for Ford, his résumé is rather bare as of late due to a variety of circumstances.

However, that's the hazard of being a NASCAR crew chief – a hazard Ford now knows all too well.

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