Only a few days had passed before 2010 Sprint Cup champion car owner Rick Hendrick announced that he was going to be overhauling his other three Sprint Cup teams.
Hendrick’s announcement was made all the more unusual by the fact that he had just won his record-breaking fifth consecutive Cup title with driver Jimmie Johnson, which made him the all-time leader with 10 championship titles as a car owner.
Hendrick started fielding cars in NASCAR’s highest division in 1984 and since that time has accumulated 194 trips to victory lane. His first trip came with Geoff Bodine in 1986. Since then his teams have put together a streak of 25 consecutive years, including this season, with at least one victory.
Johnson accounted for all six of Hendrick Motor Sports’ wins this season, with fellow HMS drivers Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. failing to take their Chevys on a victory lap after capturing a checkered flag. Gordon was the only one of the three to join Johnson in the 12-man Chase field, leaving Hendrick with the dubious task of taking steps to turn the fortunes of all three teams around before the green flag waves at Daytona in February.
Hendrick took the route of change that had been tried before in the series by a variety of owners when he swapped drivers and crew chiefs. The only diff erence was his swap took place among three teams and not the usual two. Four-time series champion Gordon saw his crew chief Steve Letarte move over to take charge of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s struggling team with Mark Martin’s crew chief Alan Gustafson moving over to partner with Gordon. That leaves Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew in charge of Martin’s final season in 2011 at HMS.
The internal structure of HMS makes this radical swap of crew chiefs diff erent from what we have seen in the past. The Johnson and Gordon teams have been housed in the same building in recent years, with the teams of Martin and Earnhardt Jr. being housed together in an adjacent building. Beginning with Hendrick’s announcement of the crew chief changes last week, those two working alignments will no longer exist.
In reality what the swap consisted of was the moving of car numbers, sponsors and drivers. Letarte and his crew will still be working in the same building that it shared with Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus, but this time he will be working on Earnhardt’s #88 Chevy instead of Gordon’s #24.
Gordon will now take his sponsor and #24 next door to work with Gustafson, who will still be working with his same crew. Martin really doesn’t even have to move to the next building as his sponsor and #5 will just be moving to another spot in the same building to work with McGrew.
The decision to make a move by Hendrick, even though it had to be a difficult one coming on the heels of yet another championship season, was made easier by the fact that all of the parties involved had won in the series. Letarte, Gustafson, and McGrew had all won races as crew chief with the organization in the past. Gordon, of course, is a four-time series champion and while Martin and Earnhardt Jr. have yet to win a title, both have been in the Chase in the past while having a history of winning races.
Since its inception in 1984, HMS has a title-winning percentage of 37.04 that is, as you would expect, the best in the sport. The true domination of the sport by Hendrick can be found in the titlewinning percentage over the last 16 years. All 10 of his titles have occurred during this period giving him a winning percentage of 62.5.
An owner is able to post such lofty numbers by not only hiring the right people and putting them together in the best combinations, but by also making some very bold moves. Last week was one such bold move that we will have to wait until next season to find out if it was the correct move but with a track record like Rick Hendrick’s, you have to like the chances.