I was pleased to read that Pete Rondeau has been named crew chief for the Furniture Row team No. 78 with Regan Smith. Rondeau, a native of Maine, is one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet, but no matter what he does in his career will be most remembered for his brief stint in 2005 as the crew chief for Dale Jr. and the Bud team. It was a situation no mortal could have helped, and the soft-spoken Rondeau's tenure at the helm was only 11 races. I wish him a lot of fun and long-term success in his new role.
The full story of why and how Rondeau ended up on top of the pit box for Mr. Most Popular is best left for another day, but Rondeau inherited the position for the start of the 2005 Cup season after a decision was made to separate Dale Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. The cousins had always fought and bickered even when things were good, and 2004 had been a superb season with six victories (including the Daytona 500) and 16 top-five finishes while leading more than 1100 laps. Despite the success, friction between the cousins was particularly high following a late-race crash at Atlanta that dropped Dale Jr. from championship favorite to his eventual fifth-place tally in the first Chase for the Cup. Even a victory the following week at Phoenix didn't help frayed and tired nerves.
Rather than patch the rough feelings in the off-season, the choice was made to switch the DEI teams between drivers Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, as well as "promote" Tony Eury Sr. from crew chief to a non-descript front office position. (I've never gotten a straight answer as to who at DEI instigated or made the final decision to switch.) This was not a simple switch of drivers, it was a massive undertaking. The entire operation switched shops and equipment, so anything and everything - from the race cars to the smallest piece of pit equipment had to be moved and refurbished. Anything that had been Bud red had to be repainted and decaled with NAPA blue. And vice versa.
The teams entered the 2005 season with cars that had spent more time being repainted than tested and tuned for the race season. The switch also created hard feelings between the two camps and their rivalry further weakened any hope of working together to replicate the superb 2004 campaign. It was every man for himself.
The switch had a variety of odd and sometimes subtle impacts. One of the most memorable was finding out that cars which were originally built and tweaked for the much-taller Waltrip meant Dale Jr. often couldn't see some of the gauges on the dash because of the angle of the seat and steering wheel. Simple and seemingly minor - but symptomatic of the team swap.
Rondeau did all he could given the circumstances, but his mild-manner didn't gel with an emotional driver who needed a more commanding voice in his ear during the race action. Dale Jr. would go on to win one race that season (Chicagoland) with Steve Hmiel as his interim crew chief, and despite being teamed again with Eury Jr. again at DEI and Hendrick, hasn't reclaimed the performance of the 2004 season.
If you're interested in racing history - or a story of unchecked greed, selfishness and tragedy - check out Sports Illustrated's Ed Hinton four-part story about the open-wheel split in the 1990s. I've written about some of the elements of the split, but this really encapsulates the major issues from the decade. You can find Hinton's story here.