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Fennig Continues To Crank Out Winning Hot Rods

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 13 2013

Crew chief Jimmy Fennig, now working with Carl Edwards, has won Cup championships and Daytona 500s. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

He is a man of few words and that’s OK. Because in Jimmy Fennig’s world, the hands still really do the talking.

“I build hot rods,” said Fennig, summing up the personal and professional life of a dedicated “Car Guy” in one declarative sentence. “Fords, Chevys – I’ve got everything.”

And in the opinion of Carl Edwards, Fennig knows everything about running a competitive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team. During a crew chief’s career that began in 1986, Fennig has been the hands-on garage area presence for a number of NASCAR’s most successful drivers. That list currently features Edwards, a collaboration that has produced two wins, a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and genuine mutual admiration.

“Yeah, me and Carl get along,” said Fennig, propped against a stack of Goodyear tires at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month. “I mean, he’s a pleasure to work for. He gets everything there is out of a race car. I think I get more mad than he gets mad about things. We’ve just got to keep putting better cars out for him to get better results, that’s all.”

Edwards, who qualified on-pole for the AAA Texas 500 at 196.114 mph, was relegated to a 37th-place finish in Fort Worth on Nov. 3 after the engine in his No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion let go 187 laps into the 334-lapper. Edwards’ worst finish of the 10-race Chase dropped him from 10th to 11th in the standings heading into last Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway, where Carl placed 21st as final driver on the lead-lap.

Edwards will start Sunday’s season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400 at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway 13th in the standings led by five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports.

Crew chief Jimmy Fennig made the Chase yet again in 2013. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, owns a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing and 34-point advantage over Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing.

Edwards, who won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at PIR on March 3, was poised to sweep the Cup events in the desert last Sunday as leader on the white flag lap. But the No. 99 Fastenal Ford ran out of gas on the final lap, handing the win to Harvick and his No. 29 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS.

Edwards had taken the lead on Lap 276 of the 312-lapper, when Fennig radioed him to save fuel. “We played the strategy very well,” said Edwards, who has 21 career Cup wins. “We did a really good job, but we just needed a little more fuel. We just miscalculated. I thought we were a lap to the good. I was saving just a little bit of fuel, but obviously not enough. I don’t know if I could have saved a lap and kept Kevin behind me in hindsight, but that’s a tough way to lose one there. We haven’t run out of fuel in a long time.”

Indeed, a fifth-place finish at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 10 boosted Edwards into the top-10 in points for what turned out to be the next 24 weeks, a stretch that included a run of nine consecutive weeks as championship runnerup.

“I thought that was a heck of an accomplishment,” Edwards said. “To me, that showed me there was no reason we couldn’t go win the final 10 races. That’s not been the case but it’s not because of Jimmy and I. We’ve not had problems between us. It’s been extremely positive. He is an expert on basically every facet of our sport. He knows everything – not just the race car but the strategy, the relationships, how to manage people, how to get the most out of me – all of those things.

“The only thing I wish is that he was 15 years younger, so that we could do this for a lot longer together. I don’t know how many more years he’ll do this, but I’ll be dragging along as long as he’ll have me.”

Edwards prepped for the Chase by winning the “regular-season” finale, the Federated Auto Parts 400, at the 0.75-mile Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 7. But he’s logged only one top-five and one top-10 result since. Not even his pole-winning run at TMS could change his fortunes.

“Yeah, we started off real nice-and-easy in the Chase and we backed it down from there,” Edwards joked after earning his first Coors Light Pole Award at TMS. It was “Cousin Carl’s” second pole with Fennig, who worked with Kenseth during his swan song season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2012. The 2003 Cup champ, Kenseth won three races and finished seventh in the Chase before heading to JGR as driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry.

Edwards said he was “definitely curious” initially about working with Fennig, who began his RFR career in 1986 with Mark Martin. “You never know how things are going to work,” said Edwards, who has nine top-five and 16 top-10 finishes this season. “I thought a lot about it as I’ve worked with Jimmy and watched how he works. He is the definition of a racer. He just wants to win and wants to beat all of these guys every week so badly he just wears it right there on his sleeve every week. I don’t think you can choose to go to battle with a better guy. He’s awesome.”

Edwards said former longtime crew chief Bob Osborne and Fennig share similar traits. “They’re very methodical,” Edwards said. “I think if Jimmy Fennig had come on the scene 30 years later he would have gone to engineering school and been an engineer. He’s one of those guys that understands how everything

Jimmy Fennig and Kurt Busch won the championship in 2004. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

works so well that if there’s any weakness that he has he will find some way to fill it and make up for it by using his engineers or asking folks for help. He’s a guy that’s not a prideful guy, he just gets the job done no matter what it takes. It’s pretty spectacular. I don’t know that he is much different than Bob. They’re both guys that are problem-solvers.”

Fennig’s statistics confirm that fact. Fennig has racked-up 38 wins and 18 poles, second only to Chad Knaus’ 64 wins and 34 poles with Johnson among active crew chiefs. True to form, those numbers were breaking news to Fennig, a native of Milwaukee, Wis.

“I don’t even know what (stats) I’ve got,” said Fennig, who posted 14 victories and nine poles in five seasons with Martin and team-owner Jack Roush’s franchise No. 6 team. “I don’t even look at that because to me, every race is a different challenge. And if you won last week or the first race at Texas you’d better bring something different for the second race because you’ve got to keep getting better and better and better because the competition is that good.”

Fennig’s resume also features Daytona 500 victories with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (1988 in a Stavola Brothers Buick) and Kenseth (2012) and the 2004 Cup championship with a young-and-mercurial Kurt Busch. “That was a lot of fun,” Fennig deadpanned, recalling a four-year run during which Busch posted 14 wins with the No. 97 team.

Currently, Fennig said he has enjoyed the challenge of the Gen-6 Ford Fusion, which is wrapping up its debut season as replacement for the oft-criticized/cookie-cutter Car of Tomorrow.

“It’s like any car, whether it’s a Gen-6, Gen-4, Gen-whatever-generation,” said Fennig, who raced on the Midwest’s many dirt and paved tracks beginning in the 1970s. “You still look at it as a racer. You generate more speed through the corner and you’ll end up with the same problems, like tight in the middle – that’s one of our biggest problems. But that’s because this car has got more downforce, so the faster it goes through the corner it’s going to create more of a problem. You’ll always end up tight but it just goes faster and faster. It’s how much you get that car perfect from corner entry, middle and exit. You kind of want to close that gap.

“But I think it’s a good race car. NASCAR’s done a great job with it; it’s a better-looking car, looks like the factory cars.”

Edwards, too, has been a fan of the car’s cosmetics dating to preseason testing last year. “When the Gen-6 car was introduced Ford had a huge part in developing it and I thought that was great, that NASCAR let all of the manufacturers, Ford specifically, have a lot of input,” Edwards said. “Once we got about a third of the way through the season, it appeared that we were behind somehow. We weren’t as competitive as we thought we should be. And then Joey (Logano) got a win (for Penske Racing), we got a win at Richmond and things turned around a little bit.

“Right now, yeah, I feel like we’re behind and I don’t know exactly what it is. I don’t think it’s a function of the car. I think it’s maybe a function of the way we’ve developed our setups and things through the year. We’re slowly gaining ground, we’re figuring that out.”

Which leads back to Edwards’ comment on working long-term with Fennig, who turned 60 on Sept. 15. At 34, Edwards is in the prime of his career while Fennig is eligible for an AARP benefits card.

“It’s a tough schedule but my whole career I’m very competitive,” Fennig said. “I’ve been in racing my whole life. I still want to beat the next guy. I want to be the best. So I’ll keep doing it for a little bit longer. Can’t say when I’m going to be done. I could quit tomorrow if I felt like it. Right now I still have the drive, I still want to go and I still want to win.

“Yes, you’ve got to stay up with technology with simulations and stuff like that. You got to do a lot of studying. I work seven days a week at it because at my age and I’m not an engineer and I’ve got to keep up with them engineers, so I work hard at it. There’s one day I’m going to say, ‘That’s it. I’m done with it.’ But I ain’t going nowhere. Jack Roush has been good to me throughout the years. He’s a racer; he’s like us.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 13 2013
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