Rick Hendrick’s dramatic shakeup of his Hendrick Motorsports team could pay big dividends for Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who in recent years has been eclipsed by teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Gordon will move out of the shop he and Johnson have shared since 2002 and into what now will be known as the 5/24 shop, where he will be paired with Mark Martin this year and Kasey Kahne in 2012 and beyond. Gordon’s crew chief will be the talented young Alan Gustafson, who two years ago nearly won the Sprint Cup championship with Martin. Steve Letarte, Gordon’s crew chief since 2005, will stay in the 48/88 shop where he will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief.
Gustafson, who grew up in Daytona Beach, is regarded as one of the most brilliant engineering minds in the garage. And that might be exactly what Gordon, a savvy veteran who doesn’t need much hand-holding, is looking for now.
“With Alan as an engineer, he is a proven commodity,” said Hendrick. “He’s been there and won races with a lot of people. He’s finished second in the points. He and Jeff have a relationship. He’s very technical, not a lot of conversation but very to the point and matter-of-fact and Jeff I think at this point in his career, and with his track record, that works good for Jeff.”
Hendrick said the shuffle of crew chiefs had Gordon’s blessing.
“Jeff is a team player. He has a tremendous amount of respect for Alan,” said Hendrick. “Over the years we have talked about different alignments in different shops. Jeff wants to do whatever is necessary to give him the opportunity to win and win championships. Not that he is unhappy with Steve and the team. If you go back to ’06 and you look at Jeff and Jimmie. If you look at top-fives, Jeff had 75 and Jimmie had 81 (since then). The points accumulation has been pretty much face-up other than Jimmie has gotten the championship.”
Gordon is coming off a perplexing year. He nearly won at Martinsville and Phoenix early in the year and posted five finishes of fourth or better in the first 11 races of the season. And from the June Michigan race until the July Chicagoland event, he posted five consecutive top-five finishes. After 25 races, he was second in points behind Kevin Harvick.
But over the final 17 races of the season, Gordon would score just one more top five, a fifth at Kansas, and his Chase was a nightmare: He got wrecked at Martinsville and Texas and lost an engine in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon ended the year ninth in points; only twice in 18 full seasons in the Sprint Cup Series has he finished worse.
“The problem Jeff Gordon had at the end of the year, it wasn’t because of Steve,” said Hendrick. “It was Kurt Busch dumping him at Martinsville (Va.), and then Jeff Burton at Texas or wherever it was. You get a couple of those hits, and then you lose a motor in the last race, and you look at the kind of year he was having up until that point. He had two second-place finishes, 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s, and I think he led 862 laps (going into Martinsville). He didn’t win a race, but we had two races that got away from him on the last lap and that’s not his style. Jeff and Steve spent a lot of time in the off-season. They came in roaring and had a heck of a start. We had just kind of the same thing.
“We fell off a little bit mid-year and toward the end we just had all kinds of problems,” said Hendrick. “I feel like this is exactly what they need, so that’s why we wanted to do it right now. ... I think that the opportunity to try something different and new would again create a spark inside of the company, and I think that Mark and Jeff will be good combination in that building.”
Hendrick was emphatic that he thought these were the right moves for Gordon and the company as a whole.
“It was a tremendous amount of thought went into it, and it was not a from-the-hip situation,” he said. “ ... It felt good, and I think everybody was excited last night, and I think it sparked a new amount of energy inside our company. Again, we will have to wait and see but it’s not one of those things you can vote on. It’s one of those things that you have to pull the trigger and go do it.”
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.