Hendrick Motorsports made major changes to its organization today, switching things around for every team except Jimmie Johnson.
[media-credit name=”Mike Finnegan” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]Dale Earnhardt Jr. was expected to have a new crew chief in 2011 for quite some time after a mediocre 2010. For the third time in the past four seasons, Little E did not make the Chase and finished a dismal 21st place in the final standings with just eight top-10 finishes. After a second place run in the season-opening Daytona 500, some fans were shocked at the result. Jr. will now be working with Steve Letarte, who has been the crew chief for teammate Jeff Gordon since September of 2005 after Robbie Loomis resigned and returned to Richard Petty Motorsports. Will this help Jr?
Yes, I believe this will be a tremendous help to Jr. The 88 team will be moving in with the 48 team shop and the 24 team will be moving to the 5 team shop. Jr. had 5 top-tens in 2009. It is an improvement, but not significant to make a dent in the points race. Steve Letarte will help Dale find some consistent runs. Will those consistent runs turn into wins? We will have to wait and see. Gordon had eight less top-tens than he had from a year ago, but they were still consistent enough to have a good points run. This was a good move by Rick Hendrick. This will bring together the two teams and the 88 team will learn from what the 48 has done and Letarte will use the experience he had with Gordon to help Earnhardt, but the responsibility is also on Dale to bring the car home in one piece. You cannot blame Letarte if Earnhardt bump-drafts too rough and causes a 30 car accident.
The change will benefit Jeff Gordon. Alan Gustafson knows how to win races and Jeff Gordon is a man who is dying to win a race. Gordon has won only seven races in the past four seasons and that is a shock considering that this is the guy who won thirteen races back in 1998. Gustafson won five races with Martin in 2009 at the same time when Gordon had a good year, but with just one victory. This will help Gordon get back in the winner circle, but now they need to have consistency and winning race cars. This is something that Gordon has been missing since his championship run in 2007.
Unfortunately for Hendrick Motorsports not all of their teams run well at the same time and Mark Martin is the lone duck in 2011. Martin will be teamed up with Lance McGrew for the 2011 season. McGrew served this past season under the helm of the 88 and while Jr’s top-ten numbers improved from 5 to 8 it is just not the type of improvement that would make a serious dent in the points system. I believe they are putting McGrew with Martin because both of them will be leaving at the end of 2011. Who is coming in 2012? Kasey Kahne. And who is he bringing with him? Kenny Francis. Don’t be surprised if Lance McGrew is back at Research and Development in 2012.
Finally, back to my comment on Hendrick not all running well at the same time. This year it seemed like to me that only Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon really ran decent. Mark Martin and Dale Jr. were lackluster. In 2009, everyone at Hendrick did well, but Dale. 2008 was a much different story. Jr. was one of the best out of the Hendrick gate. Gordon and Mears struggled compared to the 88 and 48. Jr. had more points than Gordon for the entire 36 race schedule. So, expect a great year for everyone at Hendrick, but Mark Martin in 2011.