HEROY BRINGS A LITTLE HENDRICK TO TEAM 42
As is so often the case with a race team owned by Chip Ganassi, it all goes back to open wheels. Chris Heroy is an Indiana native who started out with a Toyota Atlantic team that produced the likes of Patrick Carpentier and Buddy Rice, among others. He was more than familiar with Juan Montoya's exploits in Formula One and in the Indianapolis 500, as well as Ganassi's track record with cars that sport nose cones and side pods. So when the opportunity arose to work with both of them, it all felt too perfect to turn down.
Even if it meant leaving Hendrick Motorsports, the most powerful NASCAR organization of the modern era, a team with 199 race wins and 10 championships at the sport's highest level. But Heroy did just that, giving up his position of race engineer at Hendrick to step up to crew chief on Montoya's No. 42 car at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
"It was one of those things where, growing up in an open-wheel background and appreciating everything Juan is capable of, I think he's one of the greatest drivers of our generation," Heroy said. "So to have an opportunity to work with him, and then I applied to Ganassi Racing in IndyCar coming out of college, so it's a team I've always held in high respect. Everything fit. It's an opportunity to do a lot of big things, make big changes, build some excitement. It just fit."
Heroy's hiring was part of an offseason revamping of the No. 42 program as well as the entire Ganassi organization, which parted ways with three longtime executives in the wake of a 2011 season that saw Montoya finish 21st and teammate Jamie McMurray 27th in final Sprint Cup points. Montoya said about 90 percent of his road crew is also different from last year, and he already likes the new direction the new crew chief is bringing in.
"With Chris, with Sunshine, we have a great relationship already," Montoya said, referring to Heroy by his nickname. "We understand each other, all the guys are really cool, the engineers are fun. Everything clicks real easy nowadays. It's easy because they know what they need to do, and I know what I need to do, to be honest."
Although Heroy had never worked as a crew chief at the Sprint Cup level prior to this season, he was on the box for three Nationwide events last year with JR Motorsports -- two with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and one with Jimmie Johnson -- and all of them netted top-five finishes. "That sort of fueled the fire" to become a crew chief, he said. Two years ago, when Rick Hendrick was trying to bolster the support staff around Earnhardt, Heroy was moved to the No. 88. Heroy worked six of the past seven seasons on the No. 5 program, many of those during Alan Gustafson's time with that crew.
"Technically he's very, very good," Gustafson said. "He's a guy who I gave a lot of reign to when he was my race engineer, and allowed him a lot of leverage to do what he wanted to do, and tried to facilitate that, because he's the kind of guy you don't want to stifle in that position. I think he's going to carry that on."
The sometimes headstrong Montoya and easy-going, bearded Heroy make for an interesting contrast, but the new crew chief can appreciate his driver's passion. "I like that," he said. "I think it's important to have a driver who's in it ... and he's one of those guys. It's my job to maintain the team's composure, the crew chief's composure, and Juan's composure when it comes time, and to just provide that steadiness ... behind the pit wall to let that passion go fast. That's something you want to have."
Gustafson believes Heroy's unruffled nature will help keep Montoya on a more even keel. "Chris, he's extremely intelligent, but he's an extremely charismatic guy," he said. "He's a guy that people are drawn to him. He's very rational. I think he's very good at being able to communicate with people. With Juan's situation, maybe defuse Juan a little bit. It's not going to be a back-and-forth. Chris isn't a guy who has to win every argument, Chris isn't a guy who has to assert his power. Chris is a guy who always contributes to the greater good, and I think that can help."
Heroy had never worked with stock cars prior to his arrival at Hendrick in 2004. Ganassi said he was attracted to Heroy's energy and their shared open-wheel history, but most impressed by his willingness to leave a juggernaut for an organization that's won six races and earned a single Chase berth, with Montoya in 2009. "What makes me feel good is, a guy of that caliber was open to coming to our team," Ganassi said. "That made me feel good."
To others it might have seemed a surprise, given Hendrick's traditional strength and the decidedly mixed efforts of the Ganassi team, which most recently endured a 2011 campaign that the car owner termed "pathetic" at a January media event. But Heroy is very familiar with Ganassi's tremendous accomplishments in open-wheel racing, and believes the potential exists for the organization to enjoy success in NASCAR.
"You've got to remember, Ganassi, through all their open-wheel and Grand-Am resources, they can do anything that Hendrick can do," he said. "The way I would describe Ganassi is, a few less cars, a few less buildings, but can do everything the same. It's an incredibly capable organization, and they're working right now, I can guarantee you."
And from the new crew chief's perspective, there was no second-guessing.
"I didn't walk in and walk right back out," Heroy said. "I've known this team for a long time. [In] '09, I was on Mark's car, and every week that team and organization was showing what they're capable of. Everything's here. We just need to put it together."