Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hendrick Shuffles Crew Chiefs for the 24, 5 & 88; Cites Complacency

By David Caraviello

Rick Hendrick knew the world would be watching when he brought Dale Earnhardt Jr. into his race organization and, before he retires, the championship car owner wants to give NASCAR's most popular driver every tool he can to try to win races and contend for a championship. This week brings another step in that process, as Earnhardt assumes the crew chief and the team that once supported Jeff Gordon.

As part of a massive personnel swap intended to bolster his entire organization, Earnhardt will now work with Steve Letarte, whose crew chiefed Gordon for the past five seasons and never missed a Chase. Gordon will be paired with Alan Gustafson, who was previously Mark Martin's crew chief, while Martin will work with Lance McGrew, who for most of the past two years was teamed with Earnhardt.

Only Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who together have won the past five championships in NASCAR's premier division, will remain together. It's more of a driver change than a crew chief change -- Hendrick said the people at the shops will all remain the same, the only differences being the driver, car number, and sponsor. Which means that Earnhardt, 25th and 21st in points the past two years, will be inserted into the group that had been working around Gordon.

"When your confidence is shaken and you just get to the point where you need something to give you that feeling you can do it, and you've got faith in the guy you're working with, sometimes the frustration sets in and it just can't work," Hendrick said Wednesday. "That doesn't mean Dale wasn't a good driver, or Lance wasn't a good crew chief. It just got to the point where it wasn't working, and we needed to do something different. I've seen this many, many times, you make a switch and you get a new lease on life and everybody gets excited."

But Hendrick was quick to point out that these moves weren't made for Earnhardt's sake, rather to bolster an organization that had grown somewhat stagnant despite winning its fifth consecutive title. He began thinking about making changes following the recent Sprint Cup race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, after which he called crew chiefs and engineers together for a meeting that lasted three hours. In it, Hendrick quoted Winston Churchill: "It's not enough to do what's best. Sometimes you have to do what's required."

And what was required were changes. Hendrick admits his team fell behind after NASCAR moved from the rear wing to the spoiler. The organization's cars simply weren't as good as they had been in 2009, when Johnson led Martin and Gordon in a Hendrick sweep of the top three points positions. The result was a reshaping at Hendrick, which will now have the Nos. 48 and 88 teams working out of one building, and the Nos. 24 and 5 out of another. The Johnson and Gordon teams had been joined at the hip since the No. 48 team's founding.

"I think, in a nutshell, our whole organization after last year winning the championship and finishing 1-2-3 in the points ... we just got complacent, and other teams were stronger, and we were not where we needed to be," said Hendrick, who officially announced the changes Tuesday afternoon.

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