Hendrick hopes shake-up in teams will lead to more success in 2011
Hendrick Motorsports shuffled the crew chiefs of three of its four drivers
Jeff Gordon, who hadn't won in 65 races, won the second race with his new team
The key now is to get Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in victory lane
In 2010, Forbes valued Hendrick Motorsports at $350 million on revenues of $177 million, making it NASCAR's richest organization. Those financial resources are vital, but they aren't the primary reason Hendrick has won 10 Sprint Cup championships and 195 races since being founded in 1984.
The team's greatest asset is owner Rick Hendrick, who has built an automotive dealership empire and has applied the same principles and management style to racing. His business acumen is so sharp that it's easy to forget that he's a racer, too. Hendrick's driving career was similar, although not as successful, as Roger Penske's, and they both retired early to become owners of Chevrolet dealerships.
Hendrick did make a pair of cameo comebacks, driving in the Cup races on the road course at Riverside International Raceway in 1987 and 1988, mostly just for the fun of it. He wasn't bad, either, finishing 15th in 1988 and running solidly in 1987 before a mechanical problem took him out.
Hendrick's Cup team wasn't always the financial behemoth it is now, either. He was able to win races from the start with a one-car team with Geoff Bodine and added one car at a time to reach four in 2002. Hendrick had the vision to hire rookies Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, too.
The racer in Hendrick was thinking hard as the 2010 season came to a close. Jimmie Johnson was in contention for a fifth straight championship, but none of his other three teams had won a race. "This was no time for complacency," Hendrick must have thought. Johnson claimed the title by overtaking Denny Hamlin in points in the finale at Homestead-Miami. It didn't deter Hendrick from taking bold and decisive action, shuffling Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin to new crew chiefs and teams. He even took Gordon's No. 24 operation and moved it out of the building with Johnson's No. 48 and put it in with Mark Martin's No. 5.
Gordon had gone 65 races without a victory, the longest period of his career, and it extended to 66 at Daytona. Gordon, with crew chief Alan Gustafson, ended it Sunday at Phoenix. It took two races for Hendrick's move to pay off for Gordon.
"I think we needed to do something to rejuvenate our whole group and I think I see every one of our guys stepping up," Hendrick said. "And I think Jeff sees this as an opportunity with Alan that he's got something to prove and I think that's a good thing."
Hendrick, modest by nature, understands the role of leadership: Set things in motion, tell people you're confident in them and let them do their jobs.
"You make the decision and then it's up to the guys to make it work," Hendrick said. "I didn't do it all myself. But this organization is really one team of four cars. People say that sometimes and don't really mean it, but these guys work shoulder to shoulder. I think the chemistry ... when you look at the DNA of all of them, Dale needed Steve (crew chief Letarte because he's a real rah-rah guy that stays with him all during the race. I looked at Lance (crew chief McGrew) as a technician and that's what Mark [Martin] is and they have won together [in the Nationwide Series].
And then Alan and Jeff. Jeff's always had tremendous respect for Alan and has always talked about having Alan."
Hendrick prefers to promote from within. It provides continuity within the organization. The shakeup was the solution to a staleness that wasn't delivering results.
"You know, everybody gets down," Hendrick said. "I get down. Everybody gets down. And you have to have some reason to get excited again and that's what this realignment this year was all about. A spark to give everybody something new to look forward to without really going outside the walls and changing, bringing someone in that we weren't accustomed to because I felt like everybody there was capable and really good in their own way.
"But this might be a way to get us, everybody excited about coming back this year."
Gordon calls Letarte "a great crew chief" and good friend, but he welcomed working with Gustafson.
"I've always admired Alan, always respected him," Gordon said. "I go back, probably even when Kyle [Busch] was driving for us, I remember having conversations with Alan about things that they were doing. I like the way he talked about things, I like the ideas that he had and the things that they were doing.
"And I liked him even more, because this is the young Kyle Busch. That's what we always say around Hendrick Motorsports, that's a young Kyle Busch. Young Kyle Busch was a handful. I could remember every weekend, they would be fast and he would hit the wall and they would spend most of their time fixing the car in practice. To see him [Gustafson] go though [that], knowing they are building fast race cars, but to be able to handle himself the way he handled those situations with a young Kyle Busch was impressive."
Hendrick's crew chief-swapping decision was certainly a key element to getting the 66-race monkey off Gordon's back. He'll drive more confidently now, maybe even take the step back up to the championship-contending level.
The jury is still out on whether it will get Earnhardt and Martin back to victory circle. Hendrick understands that, although he believes the turnaround will be across the board.
"It's early," Hendrick said at the post-race media conference in Phoenix. "By summer, you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake, but right now, the chemistry looks really good in the teams and we are competitive every week."
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