Race Weekend Central

5 Questions for 2011: Who Wins the Game of Hendrick Crew Chief Musical Chairs?

New points. New pavement. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2011, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation and get what once seemed like limitless upward momentum jumpstarted again.

Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both the Bud Shootout and 53rd Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the coming decade. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start that 2011 analysis, figuring out just exactly how the controversies, the Earnhardt drama and the NASCAR tweaks both on and off the track will work out.

This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing in 2011; as we try and find the answers, 10 staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November…

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Hendrick Motorsports played crew chief musical chairs this offseason, giving Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin a breath of fresh air. Will any of the three benefit from the arrangement, and if Junior struggles again, do you expect him to leave the Hendrick camp a year early?

Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: I wish I could sit here and tell you Steve Letarte is the answer for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s not. A laidback, happy-go-lucky guy just isn’t the answer for a moody, mercurial Most Popular Driver who needs the whip cracked a la Tony Eury Sr. during the early years of what was a successful career at DEI. Sure, the Letarte/Earnhardt bromance will have a lot of fun playing fantasy football off the track; but on it, that friendship won’t allow the crew chief to become a Father Figure his driver desperately needs.

Could a win be in the cards? Perhaps, but long-term success should continue to prove elusive despite a newly-formed pipeline of cars and equipment directly from the No. 48.

On the flip side, Alan Gustafson could salvage Jeff Gordon’s career as their partnership has a hint of perfect chemistry already attached. The combination of crafty engineering savvy plus veteran driving expertise has already paid dividends at HMS (see Martin, Mark) and I’d expect nothing less than three wins and a top-five points finish from that duo in year one.

Martin? Well, the jury is still out for an organization that likes to use fourth-ranked, lame-duck drivers as experimental R&D guinea pigs. Keep in mind McGrew’s got the least success on paper of any of the crew chiefs rotating through HMS; that said, Martin’s also the type of driver who could score a victory with a monkey calling the shots from the pit box.

On to the matter of Junior… and his future. I’m in the minority amongst this staff, but if there’s no Chase three years in a row that’s got to mean some type of change is in order for him. How many big names have we seen bolt their contracts a year early; the question is, would Richard Childress have a place, a car and team to use as a bargaining chip?

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Gordon hit the jackpot in this deal, but it certainly shouldn’t hurt anyone. Gordon gets technical brilliance in Alan Gustafson – at this stage of his career he needs a wrench, not a coach, and he got one. Junior gets a guy who understands him in Letarte and, since he has a driving style more similar to Jimmie Johnson’s than either of his teammates, could blossom by working closely with the five-time champ and Chad Knaus. Martin, with his switch is reunited with some key members of the team that brought him within a hair’s breadth of a championship in 2009.

Looking ahead, regardless of the win tally I don’t expect Junior to go anywhere – where is he going to go? Besides, Hendrick has a cash cow in the perpetual Most Popular Driver, and he’s unlikely to fire him as long as he stays within shouting distance of the top dozen or so.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: Junior, Junior, Junior, blah blah blah blah blah!!! Junior is a nice guy but as a driver he is, like… just slightly four times better than Michael Waltrip. Junior’s problems are in his head, you see, and not atop the pit box.

If he struggles, AGAIN, no, I don’t believe he will jump ship early because he is, after all, still a cash cow from a marketing standpoint. However, if Junior were to have inklings of where to go next, there is only one place left to run and it should have been where he wound up in the first place: Richard Childress. There are reasons Dale Sr. chose to drive for RCR and not himself at DEI. If Junior wants to have any hope of revitalizing his career and living up to even half of his daddy’s potential, he needs to get serious about racing and go drive for Richard.

As for Gordon and Martin… both of these guys have a hundred times the talent that Junior has, not to mention the maturity and experience, to the point that you could almost put Brian France atop their pit box and they’d still do OK… note I did say ALMOST!

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The practice of swapping teams and crews was pioneered back in the late 1990s with Richard Childress, making moves after Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt weren’t exactly having the best of seasons. Jack Roush followed suit a few years later, and now it has become the en vogue practice to help spark performance and chemistry in struggling race teams. In Hendrick Motorsports’ case, however, I think the outcome will average out among the three involved.

Splitting up Alan Gustafson and Martin I believe was a mistake, but I’m not the one whose name is a prefix to Motorsports. Pairing Martin with McGrew will likely work out well, primarily because historically Martin has career years when paired with a new crew chief, and Martin and McGrew did win together in the Nationwide Series in 2008. The engineers are the ones who are going to make the difference on race day, and much will be made reuniting Martin with the key personnel he won five races with in 2009.

Gordon stands to gain the most, being paired with Gustafson. After spurring on teammate Martin to five wins and another oh-so-close title run in 2009, Hendrick Motorsports’ best-kept secret weapon will return the No. 24 to the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. If not a championship-winning year, you will see Super G executing some monster burnouts after races – and not from trying to beat traffic out of the track.

Of course, the major move and the one everybody will be scrutinizing more than the Zapruder film is the new duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte. Earnhardt has said in the past he needs somebody to keep him in check and motivate him; however, Letarte is not exactly Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. The chemistry was never there between McGrew and Earnhardt (obviously), however I chalk some of that up to the way things ended up with his cousin, Tony Eury Jr. McGrew was his rebound crew chief, so this next one is really going to work out!

Memo to Hendrick Motorsports: if you really want to see the Dale Jr. that was the Most Popular Driver – and a damned good one – from 2000-06, throw whatever money it takes to get the old man Tony Eury Sr. back on the pit box on Sundays to call the race. There will be plenty of AMP Energy drink to spray around after that.

Doug Turnbull, Frontstretch Podcast Host: Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. will certainly benefit from their switches. Steve Letarte is a great crew chief who nearly led Gordon to the ’07 Cup crown and almost took him to victory lane several times in 2010. His pairing with Junior will certainly improve the No. 88’s standing.

Across the way, getting used to dealing with moody drivers (Kyle Busch) Gustafson has a proven track record at getting the best out of his drivers (see: Busch 2006 and 2007 and Martin in 2009). Meanwhile, there is a negative 100% chance that Earnhardt Jr. will leave the Hendrick camp early. Not only will he not be allowed, but the No. 88 is by far the best ride he could land in the Cup Series.

Tony Lumbis, Marketing Manager: I believe all three will benefit. First off, Gordon isn’t exactly as low maintenance as some of his radio transmissions would suggest. Even if they will never admit it, frustrations had to be growing between both he and Steve Letarte after the four-time champion recorded only one win the last three seasons. Alan Gustafson has the fresh voice and the engineering savvy that should be just what the doctor ordered.

If history is any indication, a change atop the pit box has often proved to be answer to Martin’s struggles. Think Ben Leslie in 2002, Pat Tryson from ’03-’06, Ryan Pemberton in ’07 and Gustafson in ’09. In each case except for Gustafson, the new crew chief had only experienced limited success before pairing with the veteran driver, similar to the resume of Lance McGrew. One more championship run might be a stretch, but don’t count out a return to victory lane now that history is set to repeat itself again.

Earnhardt Jr. has never been able to duplicate the success he had while having the voice of Tony Eury Sr. in his ear. A stern voice to keep the sometimes short-fused Earnhardt focused is exactly what he has lacked since the departure of the elder Eury and what he will get with Letarte. Just one win, not influenced by gas mileage would be a huge step in the right direction for the No. 88 team and driver. If expectations aren’t met, though, I don’t expect Junior to leave. He has adamantly stated that he does not want to drive for RCR, so where else would he go? The answer is nowhere.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: I think all three drivers stand to benefit because I think Gordon and Martin had very stale seasons last year. I think this was done not just to benefit Junior, but all of them with an eye on freshening things up. I think it will definitely do that for Gordon. I don’t think Junior will leave a year early if this move doesn’t work because if he was that quickly discouraged, he’d already have tried to leave.

Garrett Horton, Frontstretch Contributor: Martin and McGrew are just keeping the seat warm for Kasey Kahne and Francis in 2012. Gordon is the biggest benefactor of this switch. He is no longer in the shadow of Johnson now that he is on the other end of the Hendrick shop, so Gordon’s confidence should be much higher going into this year. His relationship with Steve Letarte had grown stale, and Alan Gustafson will be a breath of fresh air for the original four-time.

Junior will be better, but not by much. Letarte isn’t the long-term answer over there, but being more involved with the No. 48 team will be the biggest benefit for Earnhardt. As for his future with Hendrick, he isn’t leaving after this year not matter how bad he does.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Gordon would appear to be in the best position out of the three drivers to have a solid year with his new crew chief. Alan Gustafson has won with multiple drivers in Hendrick equipment and his experience, coupled with Gordon’s abilities, should prove to be a successful combination in 2011. Earnhardt Jr. is more of an unknown; he’s bound to get going again sometime and Steve Letarte just might be the perfect personality to make that happen. He was very close to several wins with Gordon last year and feels that the engine department at Hendrick has made strides towards getting the speed back into their program.

If Earnhardt doesn’t succeed, though he’ll still be in the car next year because Hendrick knows that, even if he isn’t winning, he’s bringing a ton of attention to the organization and that is always a good thing.

Jay Pennell, Senior Editor: I think both Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. will benefit from this move, but it is unseen how Martin will react. I believe more than the crew chief swap, I think switching the shops to the 48/88 and the 24/5 is the bigger change. This is a put-up-or-shut-up year for both Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. as between the pair they have two wins in the last 108 races. While Earnhardt and his crew will now be working closely with Johnson, Chad Knaus and his guys, the veterans Martin and Gordon should benefit from working together as well.

If Earnhardt Jr. continues to struggle, I feel like he will have to explore his options and look at other teams. One place I see Earnhardt fitting very well is at an organization like Richard Childress Racing. Both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton have contracts up at the end of the 2011 season and if one of them were not to return to RCR, Earnhardt could bring the family name back to the company. Can’t you just imagine the excitement from the fans if this actually happened?

That being said, I do feel that Earnhardt Jr. will have a solid year with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011. While I do not foresee him taking home the title, I expect him to be a contender and win races once again.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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