No one can accuse Rick Hendrick of being complacent.
Fresh off his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and his 10th since 1995, Hendrick totally realigned his three non-title-winning teams for 2011, moving Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the now 48/88 shop, where he will be paired with crew chief Steve Letarte, and sending Jeff Gordon to work with Alan Gustafson at the 5/24 shop, where Lance McGrew will be Mark Martin's crew chief.
Quoting Winston Churchill, Hendrick said he told his team members, “It’s not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we have to do what’s required.”
Hendrick said that despite Jimmie Johnson's championship run this season, that as an organization Hendrick Motorsports had grown complacent and needed major changes heading into 2011.
“We feel that this move will make all four teams better,” said Hendrick. “I think that everyone’s going to have heightened energy for 2011.”
From Hendrick’s standpoint, he said Letarte’s people skills and insights into Earnhardt’s personality would be a good fit for NASCAR’s perennially most popular driver, while the more technically oriented Gustafson would be a better choice for Gordon, a driver who perhaps needs less encouragement and confidence building than Earnhardt.
“Jeff is a team player,” said Hendrick. “He has a tremendous amount of respect for Alan. Jeff wants to do whatever it takes to win championships.”
As for Martin, Hendrick said he will be reunited with his race engineer, Chris Heroy, who worked so well with him in 2009 during Martin’s championship runner-up finish before moving to Earnhardt’s car this season. Hendrick also noted that he had full confidence in McGrew, who had won NASCAR Nationwide Series championships with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. “Mark Martin’s not getting the short end of the stick,” Hendrick said. “He’s getting all the stick he wants. And that’s coming from me.”
One of the interesting elements to the change is in the pit crews. Johnson’s pit crew, which was swapped out for Gordon’s midway through the Texas race, will return to the 48 in 2011, although some of the crewmen will be replaced after a subpar year. Gordon’s old pit crew will go back to Letarte, which means they will be Earnhardt’s pit crew next season.
Hendrick did say the radical restructuring was not centered around the floundering Earnhardt, who was 25th in points in 2009 and 21st last year, the two worst seasons in his 11 full-time years in the Sprint Cup Series.
“This was not a move that — we made this major move because of Dale or his situation,” Hendrick said. “All those factors weigh into it. But I think when I looked at the personalities and the strong traits of each team and each crew chief, and each engineer, and then looked at the drivers, and then looked at starting at doing something to make a change — to pair up people that I thought would be better together — it’s probably one of the most radical moves I’ve made in my years in racing, this many at one time.”
Nonetheless, Hendrick said he was confident about the decision.
“When the motors and the chassis and the bodies are all the same, then it’s got to be the combination of chemistry inside the team,” Hendrick said. “ ... The more we talked about it, the more excited we got. The proof will be in the performance next year, but I’m excited about making all four teams better. We need to get better across the board. We’re going to get better. We’re going to work harder and we’re not going to leave any stone unturned. And that’s the attitude and the fire that’s in the whole organization now.”
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.