Hendrick conducts chemistry experiment
Will Hendrick Motorsports drivers be giving thanks for their new crew chiefs in 2011, or will they feel they’ve been stuck with turkeys?
Considering that Jimmie Johnson was the only Hendrick driver who had a successful season, it’s not surprising that significant changes were made for the drivers of the Nos. 5, 24 and 88 not long after the transporters returned from the season finale at Homestead.
Performance was down. Pit crews were lagging, and cars lacked consistent speed. Most important, chemistry was wanting in several areas. Some relationships had simply run their course.
And with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s inability to crack the top 20 in the points standings for the past two seasons, team owner Rick Hendrick felt the pressure as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver continued to plummet.
Hendrick said on Wednesday the crew swap was one of the “most radical moves” he has made in all of his years in racing. But Hendrick insisted he’s not changing people in the shops — only the drivers.
“The people in the (Nos.) 24 and 48 shops will remain the same,” Hendrick said. “The only thing that will change is Jeff Gordon’s seat will become Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s seat. The cars, the people will all be the same.”
Here’s the new lineup for Hendrick Motorsports:
No. 88 team: Dale Earnhardt Jr./Steve Letarte — Hendrick acknowledges when he brought Junior into the fold at the end of 2007 he understood “the world was watching, and we needed to make it right.”
Hendrick believed that removing Tony Eury Jr. from the mix and adding longtime HMS lieutenant Lance McGrew would improve the situation. However, McGrew was every bit as acerbic over the radio as Earnhardt was and did not show overwhelming confidence in his driver. Nothing really blossomed between this pair, and it’s surprising Hendrick waited as long as he did to make a change.
“When your confidence is shaken, you just get to a point where you need something to give you that feeling that you can do it and you’ve got faith in the guy that you’re working with,” Hendrick said. “Sometimes, it just gets to a point the frustration sets in and it just can’t work. It doesn’t mean that Dale is not a good driver or Lance isn’t a good crew chief. It just got to the point where it was not working, and we needed to do something different.
“I had seen this many, many times. You make a switch, and you get a new lease on life and everybody gets excited.”
While Hendrick remains “committed” to making the No. 88 team work and certainly has an arsenal of tools to accomplish that, he has little control over his mercurial driver.
To compound the problem, Earnhardt’s 0-for-93 streak isn’t a huge confidence builder. Letarte’s 65-race slump isn’t much better.
However, Hendrick says Earnhardt and Letarte’s personalities are well-suited for each other. Letarte and Earnhardt’s former crew chief Eury are close friends, and the three enjoy time away from the track. Hendrick said Letarte and Earnhardt have spoken, and the crew chief has already identified areas where he can work on Junior’s program.
“He is very smart, but he’s got a tremendous personality,” Hendrick said. “He knows how to get close to people.
“I think Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in the debriefs and so forth. I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. I think Steve will be able to, because of that chemistry between the two of them.”
Will the third crew chief be the charm for Earnhardt? From the moment chatter started on the possibility of changes on the No. 88 team, Earnhardt insisted he was putting his future in Hendrick’s hands.
"Rick Hendrick is someone I trust wholeheartedly, and any decision he makes inside or outside his organization is something I support,” Earnhardt said. “He is a 10-time champion owner, and that speaks directly to his ability to lead. I am committed to give Steve Letarte and the new team 100 percent of my effort.
“I spoke with Steve last night, and his enthusiasm really pumped me up to the point I wish we were going to the track this weekend. I really enjoyed working with Lance (McGrew), and I want to thank him and everyone on that team for their hard work.”
No. 24 team: Jeff Gordon/Alan Gustafson — If Gordon had decided to stay his original course and retire at 40, Letarte likely would still be on the No. 24 pit box. But considering that Gordon just signed a new sponsorship deal with AARP, there was no reason to settle for mediocre results the next three years. Enter Gustafson, one of the brightest crew chiefs not only at Hendrick Motorsports, but also in the NASCAR garage.
Gustafson, 35, lit a tremendous spark under a 50-year-old Mark Martin at the start of 2009 that turned the veteran into a title contender for the first time since 2002. He will do the same for Gordon.
“With Alan as an engineer, he is a proven commodity,” Hendrick said. “He’s been there and won races with a lot of people. He’s finished second in the points. He and Jeff have a relationship. He’s very technical, not a lot of conversation, but very to the point and matter-of-fact, and Jeff I think at this point in his career, and with his track record, that works good for Jeff.”
Gustafson offers intelligent, articulate feedback over the radio — an area that Gordon found challenging with Letarte over the past few seasons. While Letarte was a competent cheerleader on the radio, Gordon generally appeared to be looking for something more constructive. Despite losing engineer Chris Heroy to the No. 88 team last year, Gustafson seemed to rebound and remains one of the best strategists in the Hendrick camp. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gordon requested Gustafson personally.
No. 5 team: Mark Martin/Lance McGrew — Given Martin’s solid understanding of cars, a marriage with McGrew should be quite advantageous to the veteran. Both are old-school racers, and as long as their communication is solid, the relationship will blossom. One of the secret weapons Martin enjoyed in his first season at HMS was the ability to work with engineer Heroy, who moved on with McGrew at the start of the season. This could be a dangerous trio.
“Lance is a technician,” Hendrick said. “I think the relationship already has been there with Chris. And Mark and Lance have worked together before. I feel like that combination there, Mark will be able to go right back to it. I think he was gaining on it.”
With just one year left on Martin’s contract, it’s not surprising McGrew ended up on the No. 5 car. After 2011, Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis will be moving into the No. 5/24 shop, and McGrew will likely find himself reassigned into research and development.
Hendrick also said “some significant changes need to be made” to bolster the teams and pit crews. The personnel moves on Tuesday are just the beginning for HMS. There is word of a pit crew combine in the works that will test the skills of the over-the-wall athletes to see where they match up the best. Several pit-crew members were not retained, and there will likely be more lost before the end of the year.