Sports

CUP: Focus — And Pressure — Now On Earnhardt

After Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson sat with team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus, giving his post-race interview at the track.

Johnson talked about what the moment meant to him, the tense three-way battle with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick for the championship, the reaction of the fans and all the other things you’d expect him to say in his moment of glory.

And then his crew chief spoke.

“The 2010 season ended two hours ago,” said Knaus. “And 2011 started two hours ago. We have started preparing at Hendrick Motorsports for next year and we are full force to make sure that we take a better product to the race track next year, and it's going to be so. So we are hard at it.”

That should be a comfort to Dale Earnhardt Jr. And a bit of a warning shot as well.

Earnhardt, of course, is the focus of the massive restructuring announced late Tuesday afternoon at Hendrick Motorsports. Effective immediately, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet will be fielded out of what used to be the 24/48 shop, but now will be the 48/88 shop.

The same fabricators and crewmen who build Johnson’s cars will now build Earnhardt’s as well, and Steve Letarte will be Earnhardt’s crew chief. Jeff Gordon will move to what will now be the 5/24 shop, with Alan Gustafson as his crew chief, with Lance McGrew turning the wrenches for Mark Martin.

Earnhardt’s performance woes over the last two seasons have been the subject of incessant debate among his millions of fans. Fans blamed McGrew, Earnhardt’s cars, and dozens of other factors. To listen to some of the conspiracy theorists talk about it, the Warren Commission should have looked into the causes of Earnhardt’s poor performance.

But whatever the reason, Earnhardt by far has been the poorest performing driver at Hendrick Motorsports over the last two seasons. He finished 25th in points in 2009 and 21st this season.

Conversely, in the nine years Gordon’s car has been run out of the same shop as Johnson’s, his average points finish has been 5.444.

The hope is, that by pairing Earnhardt with Johnson, it will dramatically raise the performance of the No. 88.

“I think it speaks volumes about what this organization can do when we work together collectively,” Knaus said after Johnson’s fifth championship Sunday. "The 24/48 shop has been one team fielding two cars since 2002. And I think if you look at the performance of that shop, it's second to none, and I'm real proud to be a part of that, real proud to be a leader of that organization and just to be a part of it.”

With this move, there can be no question that Hendrick has thrown all his considerable resources behind raising Earnhardt’s game. Within a couple of hours after the announcement, the reorganization already had been dubbed “Operation Save Junior” by rabid Earnhardt fans hungry to see their driver finally succeed at Hendrick Motorsports.

The stakes are huge: When Earnhardt wins, it literally drives the sport. Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith said last year that in a meeting with Brian France that the NASCAR chairman and CEO asked him what needed to happen for NASCAR to reverse its attendance and ratings declines. Smith’s answer? Earnhardt needs to win five or six races a year. Ask any race-track promoter the best way to put butts in the seats and they’ll tell you the same thing: Earnhardt needs to start winning.

But it’s easier said than done.

“When I first started in the sport, there was three or four cars that you had to beat to win a race, and it was maybe two or three cars to win a championship,” said Hendrick. “ ... Today, you've got at least 15 cars that can win a race. You have guys that won multiple races that didn't make the Chase. And you had guys that came on pretty strong at the end; if they had been in the Chase, they could have made a difference. And I think, you know, from our own standpoint, we have got a lot of work to do on some of the other teams. But NASCAR has got us in such a tight box, there's so many talented people, there's so many talented drivers, there's so many talented teams, well-funded teams, it is hard to do.”

For Earnhardt and Hendrick together, 2011 is a make-or-break year. It’s hard to see the two staying together beyond this season if they aren’t at a minimum a top-10 team that wins a couple of races.

Having been down this road already in May 2009, when Hendrick replaced Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief, Earnhardt is about out of chances. So, for that matter, is the team. Either this works and they go forward, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine that 2012 will see another year of Earnhardt running 25th every week in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

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.