Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Thursday, February 17, 2011
Updated: February 18, 10:10 AM ET
Six straight titles for Jimmie Johnson?

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One super team is not good enough for Rick Hendrick.

NASCAR's most successful team owner easily could have sat back and gloated about having a team that has won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

He didn't. Hendrick opted to shake things up in hopes of bringing his three other teams closer to the level of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy crew.

"I don't think we were as strong as an organization in 2010 as we were in 2009," Hendrick said. "So I used one of [Winston] Churchill's quotes: 'It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required.'"

Jimmie Johnson & Rick Hendrick
Reigning Sprint Cup champs Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick have been unbeatable since 2006.

Doing what's required in Hendrick's eyes was moving three of his drivers to different crew chiefs and teams.

Mark Martin moved to crew chief Lance McGrew, Jeff Gordon now is with Alan Gustafson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teams with Steve Letarte.

From the moment Hendrick made the announcement in November, many fans immediately dubbed this "the Earnhardt move," designed mainly to try to improve Junior's plight.

"This was not a move we made because of Dale or his situation," Hendrick said. "But it's probably one of the most radical moves I've made in all my years of racing to do this many changes at one time."

It's not quite as radical as it sounds. No one is moving anywhere at Hendrick Motorsports except the three drivers in the two buildings that house two teams each.

Gordon moved to what was Martin's team, Martin moved over in the same shop to what was Earnhardt's team, and Earnhardt relocated to what was Gordon's team in the old 48/24 shop.

Maybe not radical, but still a major three-team trade that clearly involves risk to an organization that wins more than any other.

"It's one of those things where you have to pull the trigger and go do it," Hendrick said. "We need to be better across the board. We're going to get better. We're going to work harder. We are not going to leave any stone unturned. That's the attitude and the fire that's in the whole organization now. It was a move to make all four better."

It's hard to imagine the 48 Chevy team getting much better. Johnson and Chad Knaus are the one duo that stayed together, but Knaus also made big changes on the team that involves a new approach to how a pit crew is determined.

Knaus and Letarte have recruited a team of 16 crewmen, sort of a basketball team with men battling for the 12 starting spots, on the Johnson and Earnhardt crews.

Three guys on Johnson's crew are new, but that could change at any moment if Knaus decides to bring in someone off the bench.

"The way I see it, competition is healthy," Knaus said. "If you're starting on an NFL team or an NBA team or whatever it is, there's somebody that wants your job. That's the way we want it here. Stevie and I worked really hard on getting this plan in place."

Letarte also has a plan in place for Earnhardt, a more regimented approach that Earnhardt has embraced.

"Steve has a stricter schedule," Earnhardt said. "He says, 'I need you at the car at this time.' He wants me to be present at the team meeting on race morning, things like that that I'm more than willing to do.

This was not a move we made because of Dale or his situation. But it's probably one of the most radical moves I've made in all my years of racing to do this many changes at one time.

-- Rick Hendrick

"If he feels like it's going to make us better, I need to do it. Steve does a great job of managing his race team. He's been a real pleasure to be around."

Letarte wants Earnhardt to buy into the program in hopes that a new work environment will lead to improved performance.

"I try to run the ship my own way," Letarte said. "I've asked Dale to take part in how we do our business. Man, he's jumped in with both feet. I think it's been a great relationship."

Gordon had a great relationship with Letarte, but the duo couldn't get Gordon that elusive fifth Cup title. Gordon, who starts on the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500, says he already has seen tangible results under Gustafson.

"When we tested [at Daytona] in December, we weren't very fast," Gordon said. "We came back [in January] and were really fast. I asked him, 'Man, what did you do?' He said. 'Well, it made me mad.' He's determined and the guy is really smart."

Martin feels the same way about McGrew, who had a rough two seasons working with Earnhardt. Martin says McGrew has a much different personality than Gustafson.

"Alan's real serious," Martin said. "We are a lot alike. Lance is a little bit more fun, so let's go have some fun, race hard and enjoy it."

Gustafson led Martin to a runner-up finish in 2009, winning five races in the No. 5 Chevy in their first season together.

"My time with Mark was the two most educational years of my career," Gustafson said. "I can honestly say that I am a much better crew chief today, and will be a better crew chief for Jeff, because of those two seasons I spent with Mark."

Everyone at Hendrick has a fresh perspective, but time will tell if these moves made three teams closer to the level of the organization's one super team.

"Change can be for the better if it's done the right way," Earnhardt said. "From what I've seen, these changes will be good for all of us."

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 terry@blountspeak.com.