Drew Blickensderfer has been on the job at Stewart-Haas Racing for a few months now. Hired late last year as Aric Almirola’s crew chief on the No. 10 team, Blickensderfer left Front Row Motorsports when given a chance to once again work for a championship-contending organization, and that’s where he still pinches himself. Because even though Blickensderfer is settled into the role, putting on the SHR logo gets to him.
“I didn’t know if it would ever come again,” Blickensderfer told RACER. “I’m super-lucky Zippy [Greg Zipadelli] and Aric and those guys believed in me to bring me back. So far, so good, I think.”
Blickensderfer has been involved in NASCAR for over 20 years, 14 of which as a crew chief at the Cup Series level. He spent the last three years working with Michael McDowell at Front Row, and the duo won the Daytona 500 last season. Before that, Blickensderfer was at Richard Petty Motorsports, where he previously worked with Almirola.
In 2009, when Blickensderfer got his first opportunity to be a crew chief, it was for Jack Roush and working with Matt Kenseth. So Blickensderfer knows what it’s like to work with the best, and also how with a lack of resources.
“I thought the last couple of years at Front Row on the 34 that we put ourselves in a position where people start taking notice,” Blickensderfer said. “We were an underfunded team, and people were looking at not only the win but at other racetracks. We were doing really well for our budget. And some people had kind of reached out to me, and I had a possible opportunity three-quarters of the way through last season with a bigger organization. It didn’t quite pan out, but I could tell things were starting to work out.
“Aric got hold of me and asked me what my interest level was and could Zippy give me a call, and the ball started rolling. After the season last year, I got a couple of phone calls from Zippy, we had met a few times, and we had to put everything in place to make it happen. It was announced late because we had to get everything situated, but we had been working on it for a while before that.”
That phone call from Zipadelli, the vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas, was memorable. Zipadelli first asked Blickensderfer about his contract status and then if he was interested in moving to a new team.
“And I didn’t want to be like, ‘Are you foolish? Would I be interested?’” said Blickensderfer. “I came home and told my wife [Lori], ‘I think Zippy’s been with a big team for so long he didn’t realize I would give my left leg to come try this.’
“But I remember the day I went to his house and picked up the contract. It was neat. I got home and told my wife, this is it. I’ve been with her for six years, married for three and she’s been through it all with me, and she keeps telling me, ‘What’s your true north? What do you want in this sport?’ I want to win championships and races, and I had to get with a company like this to do it. So, this is a step in that direction.”
Getting used to a new company took some time getting used to. Who’s in charge of what? What is the workflow?
“First thing I really took in was the racer mentality and attitude at SHR,” said Blickensderfer. “I came in in a year where the Next Gen car was coming about, and there was a lot of naysayers and negativity in the garage about struggles with parts, the way this car handled. A lot of things that people weren’t happy with. The thing I realized early – and I told Joe Custer and Greg Zipadelli this about my second or third week – nobody around here complains about what the challenges are. They’re just trying to figure out how are we going to take X amount of parts and go beat the next guy. It was immediately fun to be a part of.”
Reuniting with Almirola wasn’t hard: their relationship never pasued just because they were on other teams. Blickensderfer understands what Almirola means when he offers feedback about the car, so the next thing is comparing that to their teammates.
“Drew’s obviously really good with the cars,” says Almirola. “For years and years, Drew’s done a great job at overachieving. When I had him at Petty’s, I felt like he did a great job with the lack of resources we had there, and then you see how well he’s done at Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell, not having as many resources to work with. So you bring him to a place like Stewart-Haas Racing where he has a lot of resources, he’s going to do a great job.”
Not having to worry about resources is, naturally, “great” for Blickensderfer, but his perspective of what to concern himself with from week-to-week changes.
Blickensderfer’s first race with the team was the Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Coliseum, a weekend he described as “a little weird”. It was the first time with the new car and a new team, of whom he was still learning names and responsibilities. Where the garage was set up left folks “running to a racetrack three blocks away.”
It was nice to get to Daytona two weeks later, where Almirola had speed and the week’s pace was much better. Blickensderfer said things started clicking between everyone right away at Daytona and from there, even after spinning twice at Fontana, the team has felt good.
“We went to Vegas, we finished sixth at Vegas and were like, OK, our big track downforce stuff is in a good spot,” says Blickensderfer. “We went to Phoenix, I think we qualified fifth and we ran 12th, and we could have been better. And right then, I kind of knew we can win races if we get it right. If we don’t get it right, we can be 10th to 15th. That was the attitude, and that’s a really good spot to be in early in the year.”
Short tracks have been hit and miss. Blickensderfer took the blame for not having the right strategy at Richmond and at Martinsville, they ran well, but Almirola missed a few shifts.
“So, I think we’re a good race team,” Blickensderfer says. “We need to be a little better to win races. I think we’ve had a couple of race cars that could win races in the right situation. California being one of them. But when we’re off, we’re 10th to 15th, and we need to get that a little better to be top-notch.”
Blickensderfer isn’t complaining and believes everything is going as well as it could be early on. He’s right where he wants to be and so is his team.
“I think if I would have talked to you on Jan. 2 when I started there and you told me we ran the first however many races in the top 10 in points and we’re competitive week in and week out, I would say we’re going to be fine,” says Blickensderfer. “We got to get a little better and get some consistency, but I think we’re close.
“We’re as close as anybody in getting, and I think the month of May will show that. The month will May (and those tracks) will show the strength of whether you learn what you needed to.”