News & Media

Menzer: Offseason changes at HMS paying dividends early

February 28, 2011, Joe Menzer,

With top-13s at PIR, owner feels a little vindicated but won't become complacent

If the Sprint Cup Series season really began last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway as so many seem to believe, Rick Hendrick already has the competition squirming.

Much of the talk a week earlier prior to the Daytona 500 -- the official season opener on the Cup schedule but a race so unique, especially this season, that last Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at PIR felt more like a "regular" race -- centered around everyone else. Kurt Busch won the Shootout and one of the two 150-mile Duel qualifying races in the No. 22 Dodge he drives for Penske Racing. Jeff Burton won the other Duel in the No. 31 Chevrolet he drives for Richard Childress Racing.

Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole in the No. 88 Chevy he wheels for the venerable Mr. Hendrick, but then he promptly got wrecked it during the next practice and had to go to the back of the field for the start of the subsequent race.

Skid is over

Beau Estes and Mike Bell break down Jeff Gordon's win at Phoenix and the Hendrick crew swap in Green-White-Checkered.

Meanwhile, the Fords of Roush Fenway Racing were the talk of the Daytona garage because of their high-performing, low-cooling new engines. The Hendrick Motorsports cars, including those of five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and accomplished veteran Mark Martin, flew largely unnoticed under the Daytona radar.

No one was really saying it. But plenty thought it.

Could it be all that internal shuffling of the four Hendrick teams at the end of last season was a little too much? Could this be the year Hendrick Motorsports finally proved human and therefore truly vulnerable?

Um, those questions appear to have been answered in Phoenix, where Gordon broke a 66-race winless streak to lead a parade of Hendrick cars in a relentless march toward the front. Not only did Gordon win in only his second race with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, but all four Hendrick cars finished in the top 13 -- including Johnson in third, Earnhardt Jr. in 10th and Martin in 13th, respectively.


The ink wasn't dry on Johnson's $5.778 million check for winning a fifth consecutive championship before Hendrick was tinkering with his teams. Sure, he left well enough alone on Johnson's No. 48 team -- although he and crew chief Chad Knaus did agree on making a pit-crew swap with the No. 24 team that was made in the middle of a race toward the end of the season permanent. Those who know Knaus know that changes always can and will be made to that group, depending on how they're performing.

For the other three Hendrick teams, the changes made immediately after Johnson's triumphant return from the postseason awards banquet in Las Vegas were less subtle than merely swapping out a tire changer or two. Gordon's long-time crew chief, Steve Letarte, became Earnhardt's crew chief; Alan Gustafson, who had been with Martin, became Gordon's new pit boss; and Lance McGrew, who had been with Earnhardt, went to Martin.

Furthermore, after years of working in the same building together with the No. 48 guys, Gordon's No. 24 team swapped shops within the sprawling Hendrick complex with Earnhardt's No. 88 crew. The sweeping changes were bold and somewhat unexpected, at least in their wide scope. And Hendrick knew it would open himself and his organization to great scrutiny.

So far, they are more than holding up to that close inspection.

"You know, when you make a decision like that, it's up to the people to make it work," Hendrick told the media after Gordon's immensely popular win Sunday at PIR. "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 of it and when you look at the DNA of all of them, it made sense.

"Dale needed Steve because [Letarte] is a real rah-rah guy that stays with him all during the race. I looked at Lance as a technician and that's what Mark is, and they have won together [in the Nationwide Series]. And then as for Alan and Jeff, Jeff has always had tremendous respect for Alan and has always talked about having Alan."

Long way to go

Maybe so, but Gordon also held Letarte in high regard and still does. They are close friends. He left no doubt at any point that the crew chief swaps were an execution of Hendrick's vision, not his. But he also readily admitted that he always has been intrigued by the thought of possibly working with Gustafson.

"It all happened pretty quick," Gordon said. "And I've always admired Alan, always respected him."

It was fitting that Gordon had to make a late-race pass of Kyle Busch to win at Phoenix. It was when Gustafson was serving as Kyle's crew chief at Hendrick that Gordon first started gaining serious respect for what Gustafson could do.

"I remember having conversations with Alan about things that they were doing and I liked the way he talked about things. I liked the ideas that he had and the things that they were doing," Gordon said.

"And I liked him even more, because this is a young Kyle Busch we're talking about. That's what we always said 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 Alan go through 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."

Busch was the odd man out at Hendrick when Earnhardt came on board as a driver in 2008, and headed over to Joe Gibbs Racing while Gustafson stayed behind to work with Martin. It has not been lost on anyone that Gustafson won four races in three seasons with the young Busch, won five races with the elder statesman Martin in 2009 -- and now he's off to a rousing start with Gordon.

So he's won with the young and the old, and now with the perfectly in-between. Gordon, at 39, is 13 years older than Busch and 13 years younger than the 52-year-old Martin.

"It's him," Gordon insisted of Gustafson.

Gustafson shrugged off the idea of that.

"To me, to say you've won with Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, I think you're pretty lucky. You know what I mean?" Gustafson said. "If I would have won with somebody who has never won, I think that's probably a bigger accomplishment.

"I thank Mr. Hendrick for putting me in position to work with drivers of that caliber. There are a lot of people who are going to work their whole lives and never have opportunities like that. I think it's awesome that I've got those chances and to work with Kyle and Mark and now Jeff. They are three Hall of Fame drivers, arguably three of the best ever to drive these cars, and I'm just ecstatic that I've had those opportunities."

Meanwhile, it has left Hendrick smiling at the thought of a hungrier, reinvigorated Gordon challenging Johnson for his own fifth championship while the rest of his HMS gang scrambles to make certain they aren't left far behind. He also knows one race does not make a season.

That's a warning to the rest of the garage. It means he won't allow himself or anyone within the Hendrick organization to remain complacent.

"It's early," Hendrick told the assembled media at PIR. "By summer, you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake."

Perhaps, but it's doubtful.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.