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November 28, 2010
By Kim Roberson


You would think that the man who owns the team who has now won

five championships in a row would be thinking life is pretty good. Rick

Hendrick has a total of ten NASCAR Winston/Sprint Cup championships

in his trophy case, hundreds of wins, and the love or loathing of millions

of race fans across the country (depending on who you root for.)

Apparently, that isn’t the case.

This week, Hendrick announced that the shuffling of pit crews between the No. 48 and No. 24 teams for next season. Three weeks ago was just the first domino to fall in what could be one of the epic team shake ups in recent history.

“This actually started about the Texas race,” Hendrick explained during a press conference on Wednesday. “When we returned from Texas, I called a meeting with all of the crew chiefs, engineers, aero-people, engine shop. We all got together for about a three-hour meeting, and I used one of (Winston) Churchill’s quotes. 'It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required'. And we just, I think in a nutshell, our whole organization after last year and ’09 winning the championship and being 1-2-3 in the points, we thought we made some adjustments, and I think we just kind of got complacent. Other teams were just getting stronger and stronger. We were not where we needed to be so we started to really try to really step up our program in every area, and I think that after the championship we decided that these moves would make all four teams better. The excitement inside the organization yesterday afternoon and last night, I think everybody is pumped, excited, and I think we have a kind of new energy level to attack and get ready to go into 2011.”

It is hard to think of any team at HMS having the word complacent in its vocabulary, however looking at the results for the three teams not the No. 48, you might have to wonder if that isn’t just what happened.

Many people immediately jumped to the conclusion that the massive shake up was made due to the fact that perennial fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished the season 21st. Hendrick quickly noted that it wasn’t just due to the No. 88 team, but the lack of overall success of the No. 88, No. 5 and No. 24 teams.

“This was not a move we made because of Dale or his situation," said Hendrick. "All those factors weighed into it, but I think when I looked at the personalities, and the strong traits of each team and each crew chief and each engineer and then looked at the drivers and looked at starting to do something to make a change to pair up people that I thought would be better together.

"It’s probably one of the most radical moves I’ve made in all my years of racing -- to do this many changes at one time. When you know guys, and these crew chiefs and drivers I know well and have worked with -- especially the crew chiefs and engineers for years. I felt like strong personalities and knowing the motors and chassis and the bodies are all the same, then it’s got to be the combination of chemistry inside the team.

"When I started looking at it with Marshall (Carlson, president), Doug (Duchardt, vice president of development), Ken (Howes, vice president of competition) and all the management team and looking at personalities involved and their strong suits. This shook out the way that we presented it yesterday, and the more we talked about it, the more excited we got.

"The proof will be in the performance next year. But I’m excited about making all four teams better. We need to be better across the board. We’re going to get better; we’re going to work harder. We are not going to leave any stone unturned, that’s the attitude and the fire that’s in the whole organization now. It was a move to make all four better.”

This is a game that Dale Jr. is familiar with, but not one that Gordon or Mark Martin have been through before. Six years ago, Junior picked up his helmet and moved over to the No. 15 team while his teammate, Michael Waltrip, did the same and moved to the No. 8 team. While it worked well for Waltrip, the change proved to be a mess for Earnhardt.

When Junior had his crew chief changed at the beginning of this season, many waited to see if there would be an improvement in his statistics at the end of the season. There was, but nothing monumental. (Earnhardt ended last year in 25th, he ended this year in 21st.) Martin, who was the other recipient of the crew chief change, fared worse falling from 2nd to outside of the Chase in 13th.

Despite the immediate attention on Junior, this might actually be more an effort to breathe life back into Gordon’s “Drive for Five” efforts than anyone else’s career. It seems unimaginable that Gordon, who was so publicly pushing for his fifth title with the “Drive for Five in ‘05”, and was seen as one of the stalwarts of the sport who was untouchable with a lifetime deal with both his team and his sponsor, could be struggling both on a two year winless streak and hunting for sponsorship just like every other team in the garage. His 9th place finish in 2010 was his worst points season when in the Chase, and second worst points finish since 2000.

Gordon has just one win in three years, and seemed to have bad luck follow him this season as he was crashed, or crashed others, and had failures on his car that would have been unheard of in past years.

When asked if Gordon was on board with the decision to not only have him switch teams, but move out of the building that was built to house the No. 24 and No. 48 teams, Hendrick says that Gordon’s first priority is to get better.

“Jeff is a team player. He has a tremendous amount of respect for Alan (Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet). 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. 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.”

This shuffle will only involve the drivers, not anyone else.

“We’re not shifting teams and putting guys in different buildings," Hendrick continued. "We’ve got guys that are working together; they are still working together, and we’re just changing the drivers and the teams. And you know with a lot of thought, and we believe -- we have a Management by Strengths program -- a test that we give our people in the automotive business and in motorsports. And you look at the strengths and weaknesses of people. You try to find a fit that will match.

"We started thinking about this, the more we thought about it and you guys, again you might throw this on me mid-year or you might throw it on me six races into the year, but I believe this is a really good move. Jeff Gordon will be moving out of the building into what was the No. 88 and the No. 5 building, but I think with Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon in the same building, with all of the talent; I think having Dale with Chad (Knaus, crew chief of the No. 48 Chevrolet) and Steve and Jimmie Johnson (driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet) will help Dale.

"I think everybody is going to win. We’ve got Lance, who has won a bunch of races. He’s won with people like Tony Stewart. He’s won a championship with (Brian) Vickers and won (races) with Kyle Busch. Chris Heroy, one of our lead engineers, is one of the best we have on that team with Lance and Mark, and he and Mark worked together and Mark won all the races and finished second in the points in ’09. I feel like the chemistry is going to be extremely good there.”

If this doesn’t pan out, it will be interesting to see what happens at the end of next season.

This is Mark Martin’s last hurrah -- he is out of the No. 5 car at the end of the season, being replaced by Kasey Kahne. While Hendrick says he is solidly behind Dale Jr., you have to wonder what it will take to get Junior back to winning. If this doesn’t do it, I have to wonder if anything will.

As for Gordon, if he goes another season without a win, and being overshadowed by the man he brought into the fold at HMS, how long will he continue to race?

There is only one certainty right now at HMS: this Friday, Jimmie Johnson will be sitting at the head table on the stage at the Champions banquet, a position he has held for the last five years. If anyone else wants a shot at him from within the walls of HMS, they had best step up their game, and do it now, because the other teams out there are gaining ground.

This season proved that there is a narrowing of the gap between HMS and everyone else. Johnson won the championship by the skin of his teeth, and he might not be so lucky next year. If those in the same house want a chance at taking down the Champ, this will be their best chance. It is up to them to make the most of it -- or else this might just prove that the house of Hendrick is not what they once were, and that 2011 could truly be the first season where it is anyone’s Championship to win or lose as HMS tries to figure out what to do next to get their house in order.

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