Energetic Blickensderfer keying Kenseth’s rebirth
Let’s start with the name. Everybody else does.
"People just call me Blick," Drew Blickensderfer says with a laugh. "It’s just a lot easier."
Besides, getting through his last name might take too long, and the 32-year-old rookie crew chief for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford doesn’t have a lot of free time these days.
Winning the Daytona 500 will do that.
It’s been kind of a whirlwind month since Kenseth, Blickensderfer and team owner Jack Roush celebrated under the rain-soaked confetti at Daytona.
Kenseth backed it up with a win a week later in California. Suddenly Blickensderfer, who caught the racing bug from his grandfather and uncle while growing up in central Illinois, found himself being dubbed "Mr. Perfect."
The perfect run ended six laps into the race at Las Vegas, and Kenseth enters this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol fifth in points after a 12th-place finish at Atlanta.
Bumps aside, there is little doubt of Blickensderfer’s impact. The former college wrestler who took over as Kenseth’s crew chief last December has given the team a much-needed confidence boost.
"It just felt like the right move," Kenseth said. "We’ve always had a really great group of guys here, but you’re got to have the whole thing. I just felt like that was the spark that was going to help us be more competitive and work better."
Blickensderfer’s impact goes beyond team-building. With him at the top of the pit box, it has freed former crew chief Chip Bolin to go back to doing what he does best: build fast race cars.
"Chip didn’t have an engineer to help him most of the year," Kenseth said. "He was trying to be the engineer and the crew chief and that was just way to much."
The formula simply didn’t work. Kenseth managed to make the Chase but was never a factor, finishing 11th in the season standings and going winless for the first time since 2001.
Now Bolin spends the week tweaking the car while Blickensderfer handles the crew. The two then bounce ideas off each other when they get to the track, but Blickensderfer knows his role is more focused getting the crew ready for Sunday.
It’s a role he thrives in, one he had plenty of time to study for while growing up as the son of a coach.
Jack Blickensderfer has been involved in high school basketball for decades, and the father’s competitiveness rubbed off on his son. So did a knack for putting people in places where they can succeed.
"As a coach you have to distinguish which team members are middle linebacker types and which are quarterback types, which can take a loud voice and which ones need a pick-me-up," said Blickensderfer, who preferred football to basketball. "That’s what I’ve been taught."
Not a driver
Knowing your limitations helps. Blickensderfer grew up going to local drag strips during the summer to help weekend warriors get their cars prepped. He ended up buying his own modified car, but soon realized his talents didn’t lie behind the wheel.
"I really didn’t want to be in the car," Blickensderfer said. "I think everybody has aspirations when they get in the sport of being a race car driver. I wanted to be a crew chief, make the calls, prepare the cars."
Good idea, even if his route to NASCAR’s top series has taken a couple of twists and turns.
An outstanding high school wrestler, Blickensderfer landed a scholarship at the University of Indiana. Two knee surgeries during his freshman year let him know he didn’t want to do "the Big Ten thing" anymore. He transferred to Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and worked toward a degree in kinesiology while becoming one of the top Division III wrestlers in the country.
To be honest, the kinesiology was mostly just something to do. He picked up and moved to North Carolina, eventually landing his first NASCAR job working for Dale Earnhardt Inc. as a mechanic and rear-tire changer on the No. 1 car. A gig at Bill Davis Racing followed before he caught on at Roush working on Mark Martin’s No. 6 car.
The big break came while running Carl Edwards’ No. 60 Nationwide car last year. Edwards was so frustrated midway through the season he pointed to the car and gave Blickensderfer carte blanche.
"He gave me free reign to do whatever I want," Blickensderfer said. "When we started having some success, the ball of momentum kept getting bigger and bigger and everybody bought into the system."
Racing on the Cup side is a little more of a collaborative effort. Blickensderfer, Bolin and Kenseth sit down after every practice trying to figure out ways to find a couple of extra horsepower.
Ask Blickensderfer which type Kenseth is — middle linebacker, quarterback, kicker — and he just laughs.
"He’s probably the quarterback type," Blickensderfer said. "He’s fiery and he’s got a lot of head coach in him as well. He says it the way it is."
Even if it hurts. Kenseth gave Blickensderfer an earful during the Atlanta race as the car struggled to keep up.
"He wasn’t the nicest guy on the radio," Blickensderfer said. "On Monday he was the first one (at the garage) and took me to lunch and we were fine. He knows how to forget that stuff."
So does Blickensderfer, which is why crew chief and driver get along so well.
"I think he’s going to be the guy for a long time," Kenseth said.