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CUP: Changes A Necessary Move For Hendrick Motorsports

As now five-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus illustrated so vividly when he replaced Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew midway through the Texas race two weeks ago, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is a performance-based business.

Results count, little else does.

Performing at a consistent championship level involves doing whatever it takes to win, week after grueling week in the 38-race season. As Johnson’s team mantra — a song from the heavy metal group Metallica — goes, “Nothing Else Matters.”

Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that late Tuesday afternoon, team owner Rick Hendrick announced a major shuffle of three of his four Hendrick Motorsports race teams. Johnson, of course, won his fifth consecutive Cup championship for Hendrick on Sunday. Predictably, his team stays intact for 2011.

But the other three Hendrick drivers have suffered through disappointing seasons:

Mark Martin, the 2009 series runner-up, failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year, the first time he has run the full season and not made the Chase.

Jeff Gordon fell from third in points last year to ninth this year.

And, most critically, for the second consecutive season, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR had an abysmal year. Earnhardt ended the 2010 season 21st in points, with just three top-five finishes, which was virtually no improvement over 2009, when he finished 25th in the standings.

Equally dismal was the fact that while Johnson managed to win six races on the season, none of the other three Hendrick cars won a single race all year long.

And so, effective immediately, the old 24/48 shop is now the 48/88 shop, with Steve Letarte as Earnhardt’s new crew chief, and at the renamed 5/24 shop, Lance McGrew is now Mark Martin’s crew chief and Alan Gustafson will direct operations for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy.

Of course, with any move like this, the devil is in the details. Hendrick has not said whether the teams will be keeping the same fleets of cars or switching fleets or building all-new cars for everyone. Any changes among car chiefs and other key team personnel have yet to be discussed.

Make no mistake about it: These changes are hugely significant. It was just one year ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Letarte and Gordon had a serious heart to heart talk about the direction of the team and vowed to commit to each other for 2009.

“You have to first start with, ‘Do we all believe in what we’re doing? Do we all believe in one another?’” Letarte told SPEED.com in May. “And while we always felt that, I thought it was important for us to sit down and state it, and we did. He told me he believes in me and I’ve always believed in him. And that kind of allowed us to put everything on the table. We didn’t worry about feelings. We didn’t worry about anything other than winning races. We started at Homestead and worked very hard through December (2009) and January (2010) making team changes, which might be subtle, but at the same time, were very important.”

As recently as July, Letarte was granted a contract extension to remain with Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, the only race team he has ever worked for.

And, now, Gordon will start over at age 39 in a new shop with a new crew chief. That’s a major adjustment for the four-time Cup champion. On the other hand, he hasn’t finished ahead of Johnson in the points since 2002, when Johnson finished fifth as a rookie and Gordon was fourth, one year after claiming his fourth title. In the subsequent seven seasons, Johnson has always finished ahead of Gordon in the points.

Or look at it this way, since the start of the 2008 season, Johnson has won 20 Sprint Cup races in 108 starts. Gordon and Earnhardt have won one each.

“Being my crew chief is intimidating, but I think over time, when the results are there, but not as good as you would like them to be, you starting looking at everything,” Gordon told SPEED.com earlier this season.

But make no mistake about it, the biggest focus of this fix will be the performance of Earnhardt, who now has gone 93 long races without a single victory and has made no bones about his unhappiness over most of the last two seasons.

Earnhardt and McGrew sparred frequently over the radio, especially in the second half of the season.

“I don’t give a (expletive),” Earnhardt Jr. told SceneDaily.com after the August Michigan race, when he finished 17th and it was clear he would miss the Chase for the third time in four years. “I just want to go home. I busted my ass all day long. ... “It wasn’t good. We were junk all day. We weren’t good. We worked hard.”

That won’t get it done in 2011.

Hendrick will reveal more details in a conference call tomorrow at 10 a.m. And the truth is, how this all works out will be settled on the race track, starting at Daytona next February.

The only thing certain is that a lot of folks will be talking about it between now and then.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.