- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Nobody thought Mike Ford would be out of work very long when Joe Gibbs Racing dismissed the crew chief in December after a disappointing 2011 season with Denny Hamlin.

Because JGR still owed him for the final year on his contract, Ford was in no rush to climb back atop a pit box. And if he had to spend the entire season sitting at home, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

But crew chiefs don’t sit idle for very long in NASCAR, and that was proven once again Monday when Richard Petty Motorsports pulled Ford back into the Sprint Cup garage. After just nine races, the team decided the pairing of Aric Almirola and crew chief Greg Erwin wasn’t a fit, and Ford was hired to take over the iconic No. 43 team.

Mike Ford is an elite crew chief who knows what it takes to be a winner at this level,” team owner Richard Petty said. “We’re fortunate that he was available and that we could reach a deal to bring him over to our place. We’ve taken a lot of big steps at Richard Petty Motorsports in the past year, and I think this might be that one piece of the puzzle we were missing.”

It’s only a quarter of the way through the grueling NASCAR schedule, and maybe in a different era, slumping teams could still hope for a midseason turnaround.

Nobody has that luxury anymore, so when it becomes evident that something has to change in an effort to save the season, the crew chief is usually the first guy to go.

So it was Erwin to get the first hook of the 2012 season, and he didn’t even make it a year with the Petty organization.

He had been let go as Greg Biffle’s crew chief last July, and was snapped up rather quickly at RPM, which paired him with AJ Allmendinger. Everybody seemed happy, and then Allmendinger got an offseason offer to move to Penske Racing. He took the job, and RPM had to quickly find a new driver.

They settled on Almirola, who had 35 previous Sprint Cup starts but none since the last five races of the 2010 season. The results have been sub-par _ Almirola has one top-10 finish and is currently 23rd in the standings.

It wasn’t good enough.

“It’s a goal of the 43 team to make the Chase this year, and I think Mike’s experience and knowledge can help get us there,” Almirola said. “We’ve got some ground to make up, but I think we can do it.”

That’s the present-day mentality in NASCAR, where claiming one of the 12 spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is the new measuring point for a successful season.

Drivers and crews want to be in the Chase so they can race for the championship, but for team owners, getting one of those slots is often enough to placate the sponsor. Being part of the Chase ensures maximum exposure over the final 10 weeks of the season, and those cars and drivers consistently overshadow the other 31 in the field.

Some have suggested that the pressure to make the Chase is partly to blame for the caution-free racing over the last month. Drivers have to constantly think about the big picture, and maybe aren’t taking the chances they once did out of fear of it hurting too much in the standings.

“Racing has changed because right now, there is so much emphasis put on the almighty point, that we live and die by that one point,” Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler said last weekend.

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