Posted: Wednesday December 1, 2010 12:39PM ; Updated: Thursday December 2, 2010 12:34PM
Tom Bowles
Tom Bowles>INSIDE NASCAR

Hamlin's Cup future, Hendrick crew chief swaps and more

Story Highlights

Denny Hamlin has gone into social media hiding since losing the Sprint Cup title

The Jeff Gordon-Steve Letarte switch shouldn't be surprising after this season

The success of RPM will now lie squarely on Richard Petty and Co.'s shoulders

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Denny-Hamlin-2011.jpg
How Denny Hamlin handles coming so close to a title, only to lose it to Jimmie Johnson will speak volumes about his future.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR

Two major stories have dominated the NASCAR headlines: the crew chief swaps at Hendrick Motorsports and the financial resurgence of one King Richard Petty. Add in Jimmie Johnson's fifth consecutive title and there's a hurricane of heavy-duty stock car information to keep your mind occupied these days.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the man who's disappeared.

Denny Hamlin used to be a Twitter addict, the leading crusader in NASCAR's foray into social media. Coming into his own, on and off the track, Hamlin wrote posts that included sharp opinions, personality-defining moments that earned him an ugly reward through one of NASCAR's "secret fines" in July. It's a world where he's comfortable, confident and light years ahead of the over-emotional, socially awkward Virginian who entered the Cup Series circuit in 2006.

For now, though, that growth is on the line, his mental state in question after a championship loss has put him in a state of virtual hibernation. To an extent, shunning the spotlight is understandable considering the circumstances, becoming the first man to lose a title in the final race under the Chase format. It's a title Hamlin felt was so certain, yet was gone in a heartbeat, an ugly wreck of his making destroying the handling of his car just 30 laps into the season finale.

By the end, an "insult to injury" moment wasn't even his own, a poor blocking effort by teammate Kyle Busch that ended in rival Kevin Harvick wrecking the No. 18, trapping Hamlin a lap down and then rubbing the teammate's failure in Hamlin's face during a post-race news conference. Such was the final nail in a week-long stretch of insulting a man into a championship coffin, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson trying hard to mess with a fragile mind that may or may not have cracked under 400 miles of pressure the likes of which Hamlin had never seen.

But now comes the moment no top Chaser can avoid: standing up on stage and returning to the public eye, accepting a runner-up finish in Las Vegas. How Hamlin handles this ugly ending and the weeks ahead are what I'm watching. Some, like the NFL's Vikings this year, MLB's Astros of 2006, and even Carl Edwards in NASCAR 2008 briefly collapsed after coming so close to what they coveted so much. But there's also the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Red Sox, who broke the curse, and even Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls of old, which never let the close losses define them. There's still time for this man to write a legacy, a season-high eight wins during a year of ACL surgery, no less, bringing him to the precipice of the Promised Land. This offseason provides the base definition of an athlete who rises to the challenge -- or the one who subconsciously walks away.

One thing I can definitively tell you is this Mailbag isn't going anywhere. Plenty of questions and comments, so let's get right to it: tbowles81@yahoo.com and Twitter @NASCARBowles is your gateway. I promise, I won't hide in a cave for two weeks on ya...

So with HMS moving Junior into the same shop as the 48, can we declare right now that Johnson will not win the Cup title next year? All joking aside, I like this move for Gordon. Unfortunately it seems Martin gets the short end of the stick being the odd man out at the end of next season anyway. Will this jumpstart the No. 88 and No. 24? Is the No. 5 doomed? Can the No. 48 just keep rolling along?

-- Eric, Los Angeles, Calif.

Questions, questions, questions. First, let's review the crew chief swaps for Hendrick because I don't think a lot of fans understand them. Here they are:

No. 5 -- Alan Gustafson out, Lance McGrew in for Mark Martin

No. 24 -- Steve Letarte out, Alan Gustafson in for Jeff Gordon

No. 88 -- Lance McGrew out, Steve Letarte in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Sounds simple on the surface, but there's a lot more at play here. Hendrick answered one major question on a Wednesday teleconference I listened to while driving home for Thanksgiving: these aren't so much crew chief swaps as they are driver and sponsor ones. In other words, while the driver/crew chief pairings are switching around, the crew chiefs, their chassis and those workers underneath them will remain exactly the same. The only things changing in-house will be the driver, the color of the cars they're driving and the number.

For example: much has been made of Jeff Gordon and the "split" of the No. 24/48 shop. But every worker in that shop besides Mr. Gordon will stay where they are. All that's happening is Gordon is packing his bags, moving across the way and setting up in the newly-renamed "No. 5/24" shop, where he'll pair with Gustafson and drive Mark Martin's (No. 5) former chassis. Confusing? Yes. Even more so when you try to illustrate it for all three drivers ... so I'll leave it at this one example.

As for my initial reactions: let's start with Gordon. Hendrick revealed on Wednesday he both consulted his veteran driver and got the switch to Gustafson green-lighted by him. That's significant, as the four-time champ's been nothing but supportive of crew chief Steve Letarte in public. Such a private push for change shouldn't be surprising to the keen observer, though, as Gordon led the most laps (919) without winning a race this season since Harry Gant in 1981. Letarte's pit calls contributed mightily to that.

The one that stands out to me: a Las Vegas two-tire stop in March that caused rival Jimmie Johnson to run all over a dominant No. 24 by the checkers, reasserting himself as top dog while Gordon spent the year as a dignified assistant. The stage was set for the rest of the year, and by Homestead I noticed throughout the weekend in public Gordon and Letarte were aloof, seemingly on different wavelengths with each other both on the radio and outside the car.

And why not? They struggled so much, Hendrick took their pit crew away for the last two races in a successful, last-ditch effort to help the No. 48 win a title while Gordon was left to race out the string in near-irrelevancy, again. Two winless seasons in three years, combined with the lowest point standings finish (ninth) since Gordon-Letarte got paired up in 2005 tells me change was needed.

That's where we'll agree to disagree further, Eric. Of all the pairings, I think Gustafson and Gordon absolutely make the most sense. The former has had success with a variety of drivers, plus the best engineering knowledge of anyone at Hendrick not named Chad Knaus. In the Gustafson-Mark Martin relationship, one reason it was so successful was that Gustafson never had to question what his driver was saying about the handling; Martin always gave the most detailed feedback of any driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.

You would think after 18 years, four championships and 82 victories Gordon would be doing the same, making his crew chief's life on the pit box easier while worrying more about the aerodynamic brilliance at the shop. That can help his crew chief focus on what's needed the most: getting the shop caught up on chassis inefficiencies after the new spoiler got introduced this spring.

Gustafson also succeeded in making great pit calls this season where Letarte failed, handing Martin a number of top-10 finishes the team shouldn't have had due to the right calls on tire stops late in the race. Gordon needs that type of quiet confidence, one where he doesn't feel a need to overcompensate from the driver's seat because certain decisions are covered. This pairing, to me, could easily win multiple races next season and turn into Jimmie Johnson's biggest title challenge (anyone remember 2007?)

For Martin, unfortunately, it's a different story. McGrew is a great Nationwide Series crew chief -- the two actually worked together there with some success -- but has struggled to find the right chassis combinations for drivers on the Cup side. Sure, Earnhardt was part of the problem, but it takes two to tango and this head wrench also had similar struggles with Brian Vickers at Hendrick. They won the then-Busch Series title together in 2003, then struggled at the top level to the point Vickers wound up leaving the team following the 2006 season.

With Martin now driving the former No. 88 chassis, this move clearly relegates him to fourth in the pecking order, a one-year temp job before Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne move in for 2012. Honestly, it's a lesson learned in this day and age for people to never pronounce themselves as "lame ducks." The second Martin did, it's been virtually all downhill, the focus on life after his tenure distracting from the present-day push towards success.

Tom, I have finally reached my boiling point with Dale Earnhardt Jr. I never thought he had enough talent or drive to really compete for a championship. Now, because he has performed so poorly so far at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick himself now must move him into the No. 24/48 garage with Letarte and Knaus. I don't think this will change anything except make Jeff Gordon a total non-factor next year. How much more do you think Gordon is going to take before he asks to move out? Personally, as a Gordon and NASCAR fan, I hope he moves on because I don't know if there has ever been a bigger sign that Gordon is no longer even the No. 2 guy at HMS. Wouldn't it be nice if Gordon were to challenge JJ from some Joe Gibbs or Jack Roush machine? Now that would be drama.

-- Ryan Lee, Irving, Texas.

Re: Gordon, see above. My only concern is whether he got bumped because of money; remember, the AARP deal won't be bringing inasmuch as hoped for the organization. Earnhardt and Johnson are the two biggest Hendrick moneymakers now. But Gordon leaving Hendrick? Umm... he'll retire before that happens.

Now, about Dale Jr. Hendrick used the words "Letarte" and "people person" about 10 times in his teleconference, an assessment I agree with wholeheartedly based on my observations and personal experience with the man. But is "people person" really what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needs? We've seen what happens when buddies jump on top of the pit box, an inability to properly control Junior on the radio leading to a loss of leadership and confidence within the program. Earnhardt had the most success with a stern father figure on top of the radio, Tony Eury, Sr., not some guy who's younger and could double as a drinking wingman on a Saturday night.

Hendrick certainly praised Letarte's connections to the Earnhardts, even claiming he was influential in bringing what the owner called "best friend" Tony Eury, Jr. into the HMS fold back in 2007. The two may be close, but I'm not sure how much of that I believe, and the entire back-and-forth on Earnhardt seemed to be a little more of a sales job instead of substantial reasoning. Both the crew chief and the driver are immensely talented, and Johnson, believe it or not, has a feel for a race car that more closely resembles what Earnhardt likes. But I'd be shocked if this chemistry project works out, a last-ditch effort at a turnaround that may end with someone being shown the door by the end of 2011 instead.

 
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