Hendrick signs Knaus, Gustafson to extensions

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hendrick Motorsports locked crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson into long-term contract extensions Friday that keep two of the sport's top innovators at NASCAR's top organization.

Meanwhile, crew chief Steve Letarte said he's in discussion with team owner Rick Hendrick to extend his contract, too. Letarte, in the final year of his current deal, said he wants to return as Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

"I've spoken with Mr. Hendrick, and he's told me his intentions, and he wants me to crew chief here and I want to crew chief here," Letarte said before qualifying at Richmond International Raceway. "His word is good enough for me, paperwork is just paperwork. There's nowhere else I'd rather be."

Their futures at HMS may be intact, but it's not exactly clear what the team's lineup will look like.

Knaus, who has led Jimmie Johnson to the last four NASCAR championships, said "it's very well known that I'm going to be with the No. 48 car." But Gustafson, currently the crew chief for Mark Martin, dodged what his role will be.

"I am going to work at Hendrick Motorsports," Gustafson said. "Whatever it takes for us to be successful, that is what I want to do. Beyond that, no matter what it is, where I need to fill, what role I need to fill to help make this team the most successful, that is what I will do.

"I might be sweeping floors. I am pretty good at it. I am a good landscaper, too. I can make that place look good."

That's the first indication that Gustafson might not be the crew chief when Kasey Kahne moves into the No. 5 Chevrolet. Kahne has signed to drive for HMS in 2012, and Hendrick is still trying to figure where Kahne will drive next season and a driver-crew chief alignment.

Hendrick said last week that the No. 5 belongs to Gustafson, the team he has crew chiefed since 2005.

"As long as I'm alive, Alan is going to work for me. And the 5 car is his," Hendrick said.

But Gustafson avoided the issue, making it difficult to predict what Hendrick actually has planned for one of his most loyal employees.

"I bleed the No. 5," Gustafson said. "I have been here for 11 years. It is something I have put a lot of effort into. It is something I take a lot of pride in — that team. I have been with those guys for a long time. I want to be with them for a long time in the future. But who knows where it is going to go or where the future goes? I don't.

"All I am saying is I am going to do whatever I have to do to help keep this company successful. Whatever that is, I don't know."

Potential scenarios for Gustafson include being paired with Kahne when he arrives at HMS, being paired with Kahne wherever he drives next year, moving into a management role at HMS, or maybe crew chief a different driver.

Gustafson did not dismiss moving to another Hendrick car, specifically when asked about potentially pairing with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the No. 88 team.

"If that's what Mr. Hendrick and the management at Hendrick Motorsports deems to be the best fit for the company, yes," he said after a brief laugh.

One thing that's clear is that Gustafson, who signed a four-year extension through the 2014 season, won't be paired with Johnson. That job is reserved for Knaus, who got a five-year extension that puts him in line with the contract Johnson and sponsor Lowe's agreed to last November. All three elements of NASCAR's top team are intact through 2015.

"Between Chad and I, we made a promise together a long time ago that if I'm driving, I'm driving his race cars," Johnson said. "So I felt confident that he would always be here."

Knaus, though, seemed to think this contract might be his last.

A tireless and sometimes obsessive worker, Knaus has learned to do a better job of pacing himself since Johnson's championship run began. The need to step back a little became obvious after the 2005 season, when he and Johnson fell short again of winning their first title, and the bickering between driver and crew chief had grown so intense that Hendrick considered splitting them.

So it came as no surprise that Knaus thinks 2015 might be it for him.

"In five more years of crew chiefing, I'm pretty sure I'll be about done by then," he said. "Crew chief years are about like dog years, so I'm thinking I'm about 97 years old. I don't think I can go much more after that."

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