The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... Hendrick Did What? Roush Says Money, Not Drivers Talk & More by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday November 24, 2010

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Did You Notice? … Hendrick Motorsports isn’t afraid to make bold moves? Just two days after winning a fifth consecutive championship, the organization pulled the trigger on the biggest shakeup we’ve seen from them this decade. No less than three crew chiefs are changing roles, with the only operation untouched being Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, and a No. 48 shop that will remain virtually intact for 2011.

Let’s go over the changes briefly so everyone knows exactly what happened:

Old Hendrick Shops
24 paired with 48, 5 paired with 88

New Hendrick Shops
24 paired with 5, 48 paired with 88

Summary: For the first time since 2002, different teams get paired together as Jeff Gordon moves away from his protégé. The struggling Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will now share space with Johnson, the worst-performing car paired with the best, while Gordon and Mark Martin move in together for a season before Kasey Kahne jumps into the No. 5 car in 2012.

Crew Chief Changes

Jeff Gordon
Old Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
New Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Summary: Gordon, paired with Letarte since 2005, moves into a partnership with what insiders say is the smartest man at Hendrick not named Chad Knaus. Gustafson, a former engineer for Terry Labonte’s team before moving up to crew chief Kyle Busch and then Martin, led the No. 5 team to a runner-up finish in the 2009 standings while the then 50-year-old driver won five times, his highest total since 1998. A coveted head wrench, he and Martin struggled with the new spoiler this season, resulting in a winless year and a 13th-place points finish outside the Chase. That’s a feeling the sport’s former Rainbow Warrior knows all too well, his weapons turned to cheap plastic in going winless twice in the last three years. With 82 career victories, Gordon is just three from getting to third on the all-time win list, but has seemingly forgotten how to close the deal, a long list of mistakes and bad decisions both on the track and in the pits highlighting a self-destructive end to the partnership with Steve Letarte. His 919 laps led were the most for anyone who never got to Victory Lane over the course of a season since Harry Gant in 1981.

Mark Martin
Old Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
New Crew Chief: Lance McGrew

Summary: Thought to be headed back into an R&D role, McGrew instead stays on for presumably one more season to man the No. 5 team and Martin. With just one Sprint Cup victory to his credit, he’s now in charge of the one last season this 51-year-old future Hall of Famer has to win a series title. It’s been a rough road for him on top of the box, with Earnhardt scoring just four top 5s in 60 starts with McGrew at the helm since June ’09.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Old Crew Chief: Lance McGrew
New Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Summary: The task of fixing Earnhardt’s Hendrick career comes down to a lifer whose first job at 16 was sweeping floors in the organization’s shop for Ray Evernham. Letarte was billed as a man of unlimited potential with Jeff Gordon, and did some great things: in 2007, they would have won the championship together under the old system going away, setting a modern era record with 30 top-10 finishes before losing out to Johnson down the stretch. But by 2010, the partnership was clearly getting stale, and Sunday it was noticed in the drivers’ meeting; the two entered separately and didn’t even say a word to each other, with Jeff outside on the phone for a large part of it.

The duo wound up ninth in the standings, their worst performance together over a full season, although that pales in comparison to Earnhardt’s 21st. It’s a pairing of Hendrick’s most laid back “mechanic” with its laid back driver, as Earnhardt has never seemed to fit inside the mold, while developing a nasty habit of starting the race with a good car, often charging up early in races, only to find each adjustment turning the car into an ill-handling tank, causing it to drop like a rock through the field during the final 50 laps.

Alright, well that’s a lot to take in now, right? Hendrick will have a press conference tomorrow at 10:00 AM detailing the changes, but here’s a couple of big questions that come up in my mind right off the bat.

Should Mark Martin have ever said he was retiring? The poor guy; mere months after announcing his 2011 retirement from full-time competition, 2009 offseason changes move his engineer to the No. 88 team and strip him of much-needed crewman chemistry that damages the No. 5. Then, after Kahne is hired nearly two years early to replace him, Hendrick doesn’t announce the 2011 plans for Kahne until midsummer, an ugly distraction that left Martin answering the same questions from the media for weeks while virtually killing what little chance was left at a Chase bid. Now, Hendrick gives him the equivalent of a throwaway crew chief, keeping the seat warm for when Kenny Francis reshapes the new 5/24 mold in 2012? I thought Martin was supposed to go for it all next season, not get turned into a glorified driver coach for Danica Patrick while getting shifted to No. 4 within the Hendrick hierarchy.

Are these moves simply a driver swap? With this list of changes, there’s one thing that stays the same: Knaus and Letarte, along with Gustafson and McGrew, will stay in the same shops. So will the crew and cars underneath them stay the same, restricting this change to little more than drivers changing rides and cars getting painted up in different sponsors and numbers? Or will these newly-formed teams have their pick of crews and cars within the three restructured teams, picking people and parts like a playground kickball game in second grade? It’ll be interesting to see what Hendrick says on the matter, his answer indicative of just how dramatic some of these changes will be.

Why did Ron Malec not get a shot? Simple: Johnson won his fifth straight title. It’s clear the No. 48 grouping of driver, crew chief, car chief (Malec) and the boys back at the shop (not the pit crew that got cast aside) smell the history of seven straight Sprint Cup titles in front of them. Making a major change now, when they’re already an overwhelming favorite for 2011 after mentally debilitating their challenger and recovering from an off year would be silly. I think Malec really likes where he is right now – Johnson has been one of his best friends for oh, well over a decade – and even if the man was unhappy, well, I don’t think there was any choice in the matter. History can sometimes dictate your position, and you don’t make any major changes to a juggernaut like this one.

Was this move the right one for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? We’ll see what Hendrick says tomorrow, but my initial take on it is I don’t think so. It’s been talked about at length that Earnhardt needs a guy that’s going to light a fire underneath him. So the organization goes out and gets … a man who spent five years in a position where he was clearly subservient to Jeff Gordon? I just don’t get it. If there was no one else out there available, why not take a chance on bringing up another “Letarte” type personality from the inside, pushing the real one back to R&D or some other role within the organization? I just don’t see this role being the type of one either person grows into.

How much did money affect this decision? We’ll never know in public, but it’s fair to bring it up. Hendrick claims they don’t go by a hierarchy; they’ve made it quite clear every team is created equal (this, despite victory totals of 24 and 1 for Johnson and Gordon the last three seasons, respectively). But after years of DuPont sponsorship, Gordon is bringing in the equivalent of a charity backer this year (AARP Drive For Hunger) who’s trying to sell off individual race sponsorships. According to sources, the team was spurred by multiple companies, including Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven, before closing on a deal that’s not as financially lucrative. Compare that to Earnhardt, whose deal is reportedly as high as $40 million, a long-term Lowe’s deal and the patchwork sponsorship over on Martin’s No. 5. Could it be that Gordon’s deal slipped financially and he was, in essence, demoted on the totem pole? Over at Gibbs, I have heard past sponsorship deals very much played a role in overall performance, the No. 18 suffering greatly from lackluster deals with Interstate Batteries before M&M’s came on board with Kyle Busch – and with much-needed cash.

Will all this switching make Hendrick better? My gut, quick reaction is the following:

Gordon – Better. Will win races, be a top-5 points contender with Gustafson.

Johnson – Same as always.

Martin – Worse. 15th in points, another winless season and he’ll be miserable by the end. Not back with Hendrick in 2012.

Earnhardt – Slightly better, but not good enough to make the Chase (around 14th, maybe one win at Loudon or Daytona midsummer). Not enough uptick in performance causes the driver to seek an out in his contract a year early.

Does Hendrick have guts, or what? Well, kind of. Some may say it’s a bold move to make this many changes so soon after one of the organization’s teams won the title. But the No. 48 in many ways survived a strong challenge without any of the additional information they glean from teammates, the team forced to drain resources and even the pit crew from a bumbling No. 24 down the stretch just to hold on to the top spot. None of HMS’ other three teams won a race other than Johnson, and for much of the year the No. 5 and No. 88 were riding around getting lapped by the entire three-car fleet at Joe Gibbs Racing. With Roush Fenway coming on strong to end the year, something needed to change – and fast.

Did You Notice? … An interesting comment by Jack Roush in the post-race press conference Sunday, one which indicates just how little racing is in the hands of the driver now? A reporter asked Roush what it was going to take to beat Hendrick in 2011, and here was his response:

“You have to make fewer mistakes than they do and be better at spending your money. There’s enough money to do what you need to do here, but the main thing is spending money on the things that you have got enough time to effect a good result and a good solution to the problems and challenges you’ve got. That’s what we have to do.”

Nowhere in that paragraph was finding the best driver/crew chief combination. Nowhere was that all about at-track innovation with the car, earning back the three or four tenths you may start out behind during Friday’s first practice. Instead, Roush continues:

“Last year as we made our plans for 2010, we dared to be great as it related to our simulations and we didn’t get it done right and that put us behind this year for six months before we got it fixed and then got the confidence in it. But we have got to tear up as all of the teams do over the winter this year to try to make things better, otherwise you get passed behind.”

So basically, spending cash in the right places behind the scenes in engineering is what gets it done now, something we’ve always known but is weird to see vocalized by one of the sport’s most influential people. Wasn’t the Car of Tomorrow supposed to put things back into the hands of the drivers? Apparently it did not. No wonder the start-and-parkers proliferate the series instead of trying to get better; if money, not innovation talks, well they just don’t have any money to spend that makes them competitive. So they might as well make a good paycheck on the side.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits to finish off:

- Mike Ford and Denny Hamlin are going to need a lot of in-house therapy to repair the damage done these last two weeks, between the crew chief trash talking and ultimately conservative decisions that threw the 2010 Chase right back in Johnson’s hands. I’d call it a “Milk And Cookies Meeting, Hendrick, 2005,” times ten. Here’s the issue, though; that duo will never be friends. Too much of a generational gap… so there’s a much bigger question mark over whether they can recover from this incident and work together. I see a hangover coming…

- Aric Almirola’s performance Sunday (fourth) was completely shoved under the rug. But that’s the type of run which tells me Elliott Sadler has him some competition for next year’s Nationwide Series title.

- Did Martin Truex, Jr. nearly win a race down the stretch before that equalized tire? Let’s not forget the impact Pat Tryson’s made to that program in just one year. If you’re looking for a darkhorse Chase pick…

- Personally, I thought Kyle Busch had it coming, not because of past incidents but of the way he was acting on the track. It’s one thing for both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson to ask Ryan Newman to move over on the track, like he shouldn’t race. But it’s one thing to fight for your position; another to spend the day like an offensive lineman blocking for the quarterback. Busch wasn’t out there to win, he made it his personal mission to make life miserable for Hamlin’s rivals … team orders or a silly driver philosophy that should have never been put in place. Frankly, I’m surprised Harvick didn’t lay the bumper to him sooner.

- Speaking of Harvick, his one biggest regret during the Chase? “Having his old pit crew for the first five races.” (Before switching to Bowyer’s.) You wonder how much public criticism these people can take before internal divisions threaten to tear the team back apart at the shop. And has Harvick made any mention of the No. 83 crewman he ran over on pit lane? An “I’m sorry,” even though accidents happen? A public acknowledgment would be nice … it’s the holidays.

- Don’t believe for a second RPM’s woes are over just because they sent out a nice memo saying they’ll be a two-car team. Meetings don’t mean signatures are on paper yet for any sort of restructuring effort; I give this one less than a 50/50 chance at survival, still.

- Did Brian France really say he hadn’t heard anyone complain about the Chase? That one line was more damaging than anything I’ve heard him say in 2010. “The best Chase race in history,” so they say, and Homestead was still down eight percent in the ratings. Need I say more?

Did You Notice? … It’s Thanksgiving? Following some analysis of Wednesday’s Hendrick teleconference, Frontstretch once again goes into hibernation for the holiday. It’s a chance for the staff to enjoy some time off, spending Turkey Day with the family and friends they care about most. I hope you’re able to do the same, but make sure you take the time to thank your favorite writer here before you do: if everyone pledged to give one extra compliment a day, do you know how much better a world we’d live in?

After Thanksgiving, this column is going into at least semi-hibernation for most of the offseason, returning to its perch on the Frontstretch calendar in February. So, as always, I want to take the time to thank my most dedicated fans, the ones who follow me not only here but at AthlonSports.com and SI.com or wherever else my name happens to turn up. Without your feedback, these columns are meaningless, and your comments, questions, and friendships help make my career as fulfilling as it’s been. Hard to believe it’s been seven years now of covering this sport, five professionally… and I’m still in my 20s!

Looking forward to an even better and brighter 2011 for everyone!

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Contact Tom Bowles

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don mei
11/24/2010 06:53 AM
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I was brought up to judge people primarily by how they treated other people. Ive done the same thing with my children. The money you have, the races youve won, all of those things fade into insignificance compared to your treatment of other people. By that measure Mr. Harvick has once again shown us all what an egomaniacal, self-centered essentially worthless human being he really is.

Gordon82Wins
11/24/2010 07:13 AM
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When Junior wins 17 races with DEI, of course it’s because he’s the greatest driver ever, and stop bringing up restrictor plates that even Michael Waltrip could win with. But when he can’t dent the top 15 with the best equipment in motorsports, it’s the crew chief, the owner, the engineers, whatever.

Now that the 48 doesn’t have the 24 team in the same garage…well, hope you enjoyed the ride, Jimmie fans.

Jacob
11/24/2010 08:11 AM
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Let’s see, the sports juggernaut, will now share the garage with the sport’s most popular and bankable driver. It would be idiotic to miss the $$,$$$,$$$ in that decision.
Jeff Gordon has earned 82 wins, 4 championships, and a demotion. He should immediately announce his retirement, and spend his days with his family as na$car continues to crash and burn its way across the 21st century. I had hoped that Jeff would pick up 85 wins, but honestly, he doesn’t have anything else to prove, so why bother to be the person tapped to bring Kahne up to speed?

It’s pretty bold to think that Elliott Sadler will contend for a championship in Nationwide next year. His career luck factor is in the negatives, I don’t see that changing. Aric might give Carl and Brad a run for their money though. Time will tell.

I also don’t really believe that King Richard is in a stable position yet. I won’t believe it until the green flag falls in Daytona.
It’s standard PR fare. If the people that you want to finance your operation hear you say, “It doesn’t look good for next year, this might have been my last race,” then you will most assuredly NOT have their money to spend.
Saying something, proves nothing. As an example, look at USF1 in their run-up to Bahrain. Three weeks before the cars needed to be on the grid, the team insisted that they would be there, despite having hired only one driver, and building zero cars.

Happy Holidays to one and all. It has been enjoyable to debate the current state of na$car during 2010. Enjoy yourselves and be safe.

Finally, Thom, this article is an example of why I thought that you are the most fair, knowledgable, and well read contributer of this site for most of this season. I don’t know what happened at the start of the chase, but I am glad to see that you are back on track, examining the issues from all sides. Well done. Be safe, and happy holidays to you and your family.

MrPriest
11/24/2010 08:12 AM
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You may call the 88/48 team the “Junior Johnson” Shop!

Stephen HOOD
11/24/2010 09:19 AM
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Maybe Hendrick realizes that Earnhardt’s problems are between his ears. Have you heard Letarte speak? The kid is a master motivator. This may prove to be the stupidest decision in recent memory, but I think you’ll see the Hendrick stable improve across the board. You argue that Earnhardt started with good cars with McGrew. Martin will be able to help McGrew make a good car better. Earnhardt will be motivated by sharing the shop with Johnson and having Letarte in his ear. Gustafson did wonders with an aging driver named Mark Martin two years ago. Who is to say that can’t happen again. Personally, I think this is a brilliant move. Of course, what do I know about it?

Shoeman
11/24/2010 09:35 AM
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I am not a fan of the 88 car, but would love it if it was the only one of the Hendrick cars to make the CHASE next year.

Sherri T
11/24/2010 09:38 AM
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Randy, if you’re talking about Friday’s press conference, it was on NASCAR.com and what I saw was a reporter asking Brian France about all the fans that didn’t like the Chase format and before the reporter could finish the sentence, Brian asked him if he had actually talked with someone face-to-face about not liking the Chase. Which to me implied that he felt all the media coverage of fans not liking the Chase was trumped up polls by imaginary people.

To me it showed just how out of touch the man is with the fans.

Craig
11/24/2010 09:40 AM
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Great moves for Jeff Gordon’s sake. He gets some separation from the 48 and gets the second best crew chief in the Hendrick organization. I kind of feel bad for Letarte because he’ll get far worse from Jr. Nation than he ever got from Gordon fans. Letarte just wasn’t working on the 24. Robbie Loomis had 3 wins, including a 500 win in 2005 when he got canned, while Letarte has 1 win in the last 3 years. It was time for a change. I don’t think Gordon got demoted. If that was the case, Gustufson would have gone to Jr.

Bill B
11/24/2010 10:22 AM
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Randy and Sherri T,
I don’t think Brian France is that out of touch. I think he’s just a typical CEO that would rather lie and use spin than address the real issues. His ego is obviously more important than the sport. He is what’s wrong with American politics – they actually think we should believe whatever they tell us. Sort of like, it’s true just because they said it’s true.
To me, France’s unwillingness to even acknowledge that there are a sizeable percentage of fans that hate the chase, was a bigger slap in the face to fans than any other thing he has done or said.

John Potts
11/24/2010 10:35 AM
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Yeah, what Bill B. said.

Don Mei
11/24/2010 10:59 AM
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What you are really saying Bill, is that you cannot believe anyone could be that stupid. I suggest you rethink that..:)

Bill B
11/24/2010 12:15 PM
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Yes Don, his stupidity is only exceeded by his arrogance.

EZ
11/24/2010 12:53 PM
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No ol Brainfart is most certainly that stupid. The best was when he said drivers should be competing high,ROFLMAO

MargaritaChicken
11/24/2010 05:53 PM
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I feel sorry for the guy who has to change the car number signs on the outside of the Hendrick Shops. Those are big numbers to move.

Tired of JJ
11/24/2010 06:08 PM
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Bite me Rick Hendrick! Bet Jimmie will be keeping Jeff’s pit crew too!

Surfcaster
11/24/2010 07:19 PM
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Now I know what Kyle was doing in his car in front of NASCAR official two weeks ago. He was just trying to show all the fans the IQ of Brian France. LOL

Rick
11/24/2010 07:31 PM
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Enjoy your time off, Thom. We look fwd to your insightful columns.
I look fwd to reading them again in Feb.

Marybeth
11/24/2010 08:09 PM
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@ Randy, ‘Why doesn’t Knaus crew chief ALL the cars in the Hendrick Shop?’ I believe that is what is going on now. I think that the sponsors, or lack of sponsors, played into this change. Rick said last summer that he did not listen to anyone who did not have a stake in it.
Someone noted that neither Gordon, nor Martin, nor Jr. went over to congratulate him. They all know what they sacrificed to get JJ 5.
I believe that the only reason they switched garages was because Jeff has had it with being a flunkie for the 48 and wanted out, the last straw being his pit crew being snatched at Texas. Chad did that without asking anyone. Jeff also got the better cc.

GW
11/24/2010 08:35 PM
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Jack Roush has the best take on what it takes to have a winning organization. The COT just made things worse and more expensive for the teams. More engineering money than ever has been poured into that pit.

Snowgod
11/25/2010 09:56 AM
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Bring back testing. The simulated testing on the shaker rigs is far more expensive and depends on what you decide as your target. If your wrong then you car sucks. Having the whole Hendrick team use Jimmies targets made the car herder to drive for the rest of the team and they never can adjust the things right during a race. For get the simulations and get them back on the tracks to test.

Gunadoo
11/25/2010 12:29 PM
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“Best site on Jayski!”
Here’s my 1st post after lurking for years.
Wait for it…
“Jimmie Johnson Will Not Win Another Championship!”
No, hear me out, I’m not hitting the eggnog early.
When Jeef Gordon was winning everything, he was happily married to Brook. When the problems started, he stopped winning. Fast forward.
Jeff remairries, has child, Presto, life is more important than racing. Now Jimmie the new Dad, has more on his plate and starts to look at the big picture. “ This is so cool, Fatherhood, let’s do some more of this”
I’ve seen it for over 40 years. Notice who is tearin up the tracks?
The young guns(Kyle & Company), who have the Devil may care attitude
and lay it all on the line. Drivin it Way Deep
into the corners and puttin the car in situations that just scare the bejesus out of sane folks. Not to many
guys with families winning a whole lot these days.
Anyway, Thanx for all the great articles over all the years. God Bless and Happy holidays to All. P.S. I’ve thoroughly seasoned these words, in case I have to eat them in the future.
Remember the Troops & Be the blessing…Jimi.

ginav24
11/25/2010 01:00 PM
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I am happy about the crew chief change for Gordon. 2007 was the high point in recent years for sure, the past 2 years have been forgettable and i think that Gordon moving away from the 5X 10 race trophy winner is a VERY good move. Certainly Jeff’s fans, including me, are tired of the 48 show.

I’ve enjoyed the columns and this one is no exception. Hope you and all the Frontstetch gang have a nice Thanksgiving and enjoy the hiatus. Here’s hoping that Santa brings Brainless a clue or two for Christmas, maybe a class in public speaking, too!

Montvale
11/26/2010 10:00 AM
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Mr Priest! That is the funniest line of the year! You may call the 88/48 team the “Junior Johnson” Shop! Just don’t ever let the real Junior Johnson find out who you are.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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