*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*
*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.
*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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