DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. desperately needed affirmation that 2010 would be nothing like last year.
From an equipment standpoint, that question was answered on Saturday when he posted the second-fastest lap in qualifying. Earnhardt equaled his best starting position for the Daytona 500. He'll share the front row with teammate Mark Martin.
Right out of the gate, team owner Rick Hendrick quieted the critics that claimed Earnhardt wasn't receiving equipment equal to his teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Martin.
After all, Hendrick did promise "to give (Earnhardt) the best stuff (he) could." And if the other three Hendrick drivers could finish first, second and third in the 2009 Sprint Cup standings, why did NASCAR's most popular driver finish 25th?
Despite the organization's hard work, Hendrick says the team felt "snake-bit." Lance McGrew, a longtime Hendrick lieutenant who took control of Earnhardt's team from Tony Eury Jr. in June, said he could never understand why the 5/88 shop did not mirror the structure or the success of the Nos. 24/48 shop.
McGrew said: "There was a hard and fast line down the center of (the shop)."
That line doesn't exist anymore.
"The 5 and the 88 in the past -- they've managed to have one team run good and one team not," McGrew said. "They've done that plenty of times, but we've never had two teams run good."
So Hendrick set out to completely change the philosophy of the Nos. 5/88 shop with a one-team concept led by crew chiefs Alan Gustafson and McGrew.
"The challenge was we wanted one team with two cars," Hendrick said. "Then they unloaded two cars (at Daytona) that ran almost identical times.
"I know this is just one race, but no one here and no one outside of our company will know the effort that Alan and Lance put into this team and these two cars, and I'm really proud of them."
Developing synergies between the two teams was not an easy task. In essence, the No. 48 team was simply an extension of the No. 24 team, where the Nos. 5 and 88 had always operated as separate entities. Gustafson sacrificed several of his own engineers to smooth the process for the No. 88 team.
"We've lived in the same shop now for five years, but our family's changing -- we're going to be one," McGrew said. "On the assembly side, there were some differences, where now there aren't. ... It's not like we're bringing a whole new road crew, but we definitely changed some things around, and we've got a lot more 5 influence, which is good for us."
For Gustafson, who guided the No. 5 team into a weekly contender with Martin behind the wheel last season, his goal is to permeate both shops with "the work ethic, excitement, energy and determination" to succeed.
"We've got to, between the two of us, work out the direction of that shop so when that shop gets the direction, it's sharp as an arrow," Gustafson said. "That's the key. We have the best people in the sport. If we tell them exactly what we need, I guarantee you they will get you exactly what you want."
That includes the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. If Hendrick Motorsports provides Earnhardt with the necessary tools to win, then it's up to the driver to use his natural talent to deliver the rest.
Earnhardt said after laying down his qualifying lap that he's still feeling pressure to perform. The best way for Earnhardt to assuage his anxiety is to maximize his opportunities at Daytona, where he has excelled in past visits. In 20 starts on the 2.5-mile high-banked oval, Earnhardt has scored two wins, six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
If he can establish momentum in the season opener, that sentiment will follow the team throughout the season.
"What we do here at Daytona is incredibly important," Earnhardt said. "There's no other race that we put so much preparation into. ...
"We, as a company, want to put all four cars up front everywhere we go. That's sort of what we try to do. This is just a small step in the right direction for the 88. Hopefully, we can be a part of what the other three teams have had success-wise in the past season this coming year."