NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Hendrick Motorsports Makes Major Changes – Desperation or Brilliance?

Sunday saw Jimmie Johnson add to his page in the history books by winning his fifth consecutive championship. One more year of domination by the No. 48 team will double the number of championships anyone in the Cup series has ever won consecutively. Most people would sit back after such an amazing accomplishment and take stock in what their organization just pulled off, but Rick Hendrick is not one to let moss grow under his feet.

Just two days after Johnson’s championship-clinching performance, Hendrick made an announcement that no one was shocked by, but one that caught most everyone off guard. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a new crew chief for 2011 – and so will two of the other three drivers in the stable at Hendrick. To add fuel to what should be a media fire, Hendrick also announced that the race shops will switch, so that Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 car will move over to be shop mates with Mark Martin‘s No. 5 team, while the No. 88 of Earnhardt will relocate into the shop of the five-time champions, the No. 48 team.

Most everyone who follows NASCAR seemed to be of the opinion that Earnhardt would get a new crew chief after the season was wrapped up, but there weren’t any rumors about the teams changing locations, and the timing and circumstances around this move are at least a bit curious. The most popular driver in the sport needs to become competitive soon or the marriage between Hendrick and Earnhardt will probably be dissolved, but taking Gordon away from Johnson’s team – the one that he partially owns – and pairing them with a lame duck team doesn’t seem to look very promising for the “other” Drive for Five.

At the same time, Johnson just went through the toughest of his five championships and during the final three races, took a pit crew away from Gordon. Now his team’s resources are going to be stretched by trying to help the No. 88 become relevant in the series again.

The reasoning for the moves could certainly be about splitting the more successful teams in the organization in an attempt to bolster the two less successful. More likely, it is a last-ditch effort to make the Earnhardt Experiment a successful one by putting the weakest link under the same roof as the brightest star. Supposedly, Earnhardt and Johnson like their cars set up the closest of the four Hendrick drivers, so it may make more sense to have drivers with similar likes in their cars working together. This may also give Gordon the opportunity to have a change of scenery, having been under the same roof with Johnson as the current champ has gone on his run while Gordon has consistently fallen short.

Regardless of what happens with Gordon, if this latest move doesn’t get Earnhardt back to victory lane and competing for the Chase, then the only thing left for the parties involved is to agree that the current arrangement didn’t work out and part ways as friends.

The other part of this swap concerns the changing of crew chiefs. Everyone under the Hendrick banner except the five-time champion is going to be receiving a new crew chief for the 2011 season.

Steve Letarte will move from Gordon’s team to Earnhardt’s; Alan Gustafson is transferring over to Gordon and Lance McGrew will switch to Martin’s team. While everyone has been given the opportunity to stay in a crew chief role within the company, it would seem that Gustafson and Gordon are probably getting the best end of the deal.

Gustafson has guided Martin and Kyle Busch to multiple victories in Hendrick equipment, and he is now paired with a four-time champion who came incredibly close to winning several times during the 2010 season. Letarte is moving into the most unenviable position in the entire sport, because if Earnhardt succeeds, it will be because the driver finally got a crew chief that could give him what he wanted. If he fails, then he’s the one who ended Earnhardt’s run at Hendrick.

Finally, McGrew has to realize that his crew chief days are numbered. Martin is on the hook for one more year at Hendrick and is then moving on, while Kasey Kahne is coming over to assume the No. 5 car, bringing crew chief Kenny Francis with him. Most likely, McGrew will be switched into another role within the company, but 2011 is his last shot to audition for other jobs as a crew chief.

Hendrick is a smart man and he obviously knows something about managing race teams, considering he has 10 Cup Series championships with three different drivers, the most by a single owner in the history of the sport. He has moved multiple drivers in and out of his company during its tenure in the series, and they’ve managed to win 194 Cup races, as well as 242 NASCAR touring series events. He’s a multi-millionaire who has been successful in more than just racing, proof that his most famous characteristic may be that he knows people and can surround himself with the right ones in the right places to make his companies successful.

Hendrick may be making a desperate move to try and make Earnhardt successful at the expense of the face of his organization… or he may be putting the right pieces in the exact right places to make all four of his race teams start running much more competitively.

One thing is for sure about the announcement on Tuesday: people are going to be talking about it for weeks and second guessing it for all of next season. If a Hendrick driver wins the title next season, no matter who it is, and at least three of the drivers win races, then the move will be unquestionably a smart one made by one of the best owners the sport has ever seen. If, though, 2011 sees Johnson lose his first title in more than half a decade and the total number of drivers and wins for Hendrick goes down, then it will be a horrible mistake that torpedoed more than just the most impressive championship streak in the history of the sport.

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