Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Jeff Gordon the big winner in shake-up
By Terry Blount
Make no mistake. The clear winner in the surprising Hendrick Motorsports triple swap is Jeff Gordon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting a new crew chief will receive most of the attention, as always is the case with anything Junior.
Gordon getting a new crew chief will make the biggest difference, though. A huge difference. So huge that a fifth championship is possible after all.
Class is in session, gang. Here are your grades for the new crew chief alignment at Hendrick:
• Alan Gustafson to Gordon -- A+
• Steve Letarte to Earnhardt Jr. -- B-
• Lance McGrew to Mark Martin -- C-
Gustafson, possibly the second-most talented crew chief in Sprint Cup behind only five-time champ Chad Knaus, is exactly what Gordon needs for a shot at title No. 5.
Letarte draws the short stick here. You have to wonder whether he looked in the mirror privately and said: "Why me?"
Crew chiefing for the most popular driver in NASCAR, one who has greatly underachieved at Hendrick, is no picnic. But Letarte is a great communicator and a true optimist. He might be what Earnhardt needs to climb out of the abyss.
And McGrew, an all-business type guy, goes to all-business Martin in a one-off before that team moves to Kasey Kahne in 2012.
Rick Hendrick talked with reporters via a pre-Thanksgiving conference call Wednesday to explain why he decided to boldly shake things up.
Hendrick had a three-hour meeting with his crew chiefs and engineers after the Texas race earlier this month. That's when Hendrick, a fan of Winston Churchill, decided to use one of Churchill's famous quotes:
"It's not enough to do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required.''
Everyone in the room agreed. A new alignment was required.
"This is probably one of the most radical moves I've made in racing to do this many changes at one time," Hendrick said Wednesday. "We just were off this year, even the 48 was off."
You know you have high expectations as an organization when one of your teams wins a fifth consecutive championship but you feel as if it wasn't at its best.
And Hendrick is right. Five-time champ Jimmie Johnson in 2010 wasn't as dominant as four-time champ Johnson in 2009. Hendrick felt all four teams needed to improve for 2011.
"We need to get better across the board and not leave any stone unturned,'' Hendrick said. "We finished 1-2-3 [in the Cup standings] in 2009, but the whole organization got complacent.''
No one is complacent now, not with three of the four teams undergoing a significant change.
"There's a new energy inside our company now," Hendrick said. "Everybody is excited about these changes and ready to go attack 2011. But the proof will be in the performance next year."
The performance for Gordon is about to go way up. He will thrive with Gustafson, a man who almost got Martin a championship at age 50, falling one spot short in 2009.
"Jeff has tremendous respect for Alan," Hendrick said. "Alan is an engineer. He's very technical. There's not a lot of conversation with him. He's very to the point and matter of fact. At this point in Jeff's career, I think that works for him."
Gordon doesn't need a nanny. That's Letarte's job now with Earnhardt.
Gordon needs someone who can adjust the car to his driving skills and make the changes Gordon needs during a race. AG is that guy. He is a 35-year-old pit box genius, a man who's at his best with a real pro such as Gordon.
Some might ask why Gustafson didn't get it done this year with Martin and the No. 5 Chevy after coming so close in 2009? Hendrick placed the blame on wingless travel, the switch from a rear wing to a spoiler.
"The rule change hurt us," Hendrick said. "We got behind. The spoiler put us all behind, and the 5 suffered more than anyone. We were building cars and had a package that worked really well with the rear wing. We had to adjust, and all of us didn't gain on it fast enough."
|Consider Alan Gustafson, left, and Jeff Gordon a championship threat in 2011.|
But watch how Gordon gains on the competition next year with Gustafson. If ever there was a racing marriage made in heaven, this is it.
And there's one other gain for Gordon. He's leaving the 48 shop and moving to the Hendrick shop where Martin's cars are built.
Hendrick said Wednesday that he considers his operation "one team with four cars."
Actually, it's more like two teams with two cars each. It was the 24/48 shop with Gordon and Johnson, and the 88/5 shop with Earnhardt and Martin.
Everyone on Johnson's and Gordon's crews built those cars together in one building. The same was true for Earnhardt's and Martin's teams. Now Earnhardt moves to the 48 shop and Gordon to the 5 shop.
"One thing I want to make clear," Hendrick said. "We're not changing the people in the shops. We're changing drivers and car numbers. It was easier to leave the teams intact.
"I think having Jeff and Mark in the same building will help. And having Dale with Chad and Jimmie will help him."
As Hendrick said, the crew chiefs stay in the same building. Knaus and Letarte still will work together, as will Gustafson and McGrew. Only the drivers are moving, but this works for Gordon.
Working under the same roof as Johnson had to be a constant thorn in Gordon's side, knowing the 48 team was winning the titles he no longer could find a way to win.
Jimmie was the top dog in that shop. Now Gordon becomes the top dog in the 24/5 shop. Now his team is working in a separate building from Johnson's team. It puts a barrier between them that Gordon needs.
And what about Junior? The men who were building Gordon's cars now will build Earnhardt's cars.
Hendrick believes a fresh start with new people and a relationship with Letarte could be the answer for Earnhardt.
"Of all our crew chiefs, Stevie is probably more of a people person," Hendrick said. "He's very smart, but he has a great personality and knows how to get close to people. I feel Dale needs a guy who he can communicate with.
"Stevie has an ability to make people feel comfortable and at the same time get the job done. I think Stevie is a perfect fit for Dale. I think their team chemistry will be very good."
Finding that chemistry is the reason Hendrick made the three-way move.
"Sometimes we call it magic, but it's really a trust in each other," Hendrick said. "When you hit on it, you don't know why or how you did it, but all of the sudden you start running good."
Hendrick said Letarte's biggest strength is helping a driver believe in himself, which Earnhardt lost somewhere along the way.
"When your confidence is shaken, you need something to give you that feeling you can do it," Hendrick said. "And you need faith in the guy you're working with."
Hendrick said these moves aren't all about Earnhardt, but Hendrick knows fans will focus on Junior.
"I've never had as much pressure, and I knew it when I brought him on," Hendrick said. "The world would be watching, and we needed to make it right.
"The one thing I want to do before I hang it up is give [Earnhardt] every chance to get the job done and every tool available to win races and run for championships."
Yes, we know it's all about Earnhardt, but the true beneficiary of the Hendrick shuffle is Gordon. Double G (Gordon and Gustafson) is going places in 2011.
|Rick Hendrick left the championship 48 team -- fueled by Chad Knaus, center, and Jimmie Johnson, right -- intact, and understandably so.|
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.