What Makes Champion Owner Hendrick Unhappy?

by Kevin Ambrose

Last Sunday Jimmie Johnson finished second in the Ford 400 Sprint Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami driving his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and won his fifth consecutive championship. In the process team owner Rick Hendrick won his tenth title as champion owner. On Monday they were both fêted at the NASCAR awards ceremony. And the following morning Hendrick announced drastic personnel changes within his organisation, such was his disappointment with the teams’ results.

Oh, sure he was more than pleased with what Johnson and the crew of the #48 car had achieved, although crew chief Chad Knaus wasn’t as thrilled as he might be as we will see, but Hendrick could not accept that his other three cars driven by former champion, Jeff Gordon in the #24, Mark Martin, driver of the #5, and NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88 had not managed one win between them. And only Johnson had made the chase. In 2009 Martin and Gordon had finished second and third respectively in the championship standings.

Hendrick’s decision wasn’t made in consultation with his crew chiefs. They were simply told how it was going to be. The changes were described by Hendrick as each of the three drivers apart from Johnson being given a different crew chief by shuffling everybody around but it is far easier to see the changes in terms of the crew chiefs being given a different driver for 2011.

Let me explain.

The Hendrick teams are run out of two race shops, the 24 and 48 car running out of one shop and the other two cars operating out of the second shop which, surprise surprise, was known as the 5 and 88 shop. All of the cars, the crew chiefs and the factory and race teams are staying exactly where they are. But the cars run for Gordon in 2010 will now be painted up as the #88 cars and Earnhardt will run out of what will now become the 48/88 shop.

Jeff Gordon goes across to the second race shop with present incumbent, Mark Martin in his final year with Hendrick, which will obviously now be known as the 5/24 shop. There Martin’s crew chief for this year, Alan Gustafson, will become Gordon’s crew chief and Martin will be overseen by Earnhardt’s former chief, Lance McGrew. Again all cars and crews will stay within the shop.

There is a feeling that the primary reason for these changes is to improve Earnhardt’s chances of winning races to start with and then getting him at least into The Chase. Hendrick stresses that nobody is being promoted or demoted and the changes are not being made for the benefit of any driver in particular. He just believes that many of the relationships have become stale and the reshuffle will reinvigorate the chief/driver working relationships and re-energise their competitiveness.

Earnhardt will have Steve Letarte as his crew chief, his third in less than four years. McGrew took over from Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s cousin who came with him into the Hendrick team in 2008. Hendrick said of the switch, “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.”

And the feeling that winning championships is simply not enough in the Hendrick organisation isn’t the preserve of the boss alone. On Sunday night as the 48 team were celebrating their title, especially as they came from behind, crew chief Chad Knaus announced that he was going to upset his driver by telling Johnson there was a schedule for testing being set up very soon. Knaus simply could not accept the unsavoury truth that Denny Hamlin‘s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was clearly faster than their car for the latter part of The Chase – and would have won the title but for its poor fuel mileage and unfortunate collision at Homestead – and intends making up for that lack of speed before the season starts again with the Shootout at Daytona on February 12th.

Hendrick Motorsports does not take defeat – or victory – lying down so it seems.

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