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Hendrick move panders to Earnhardt Jr.

by Dave Grayson
Friday, November 26, 2010

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HMS panders to NASCAR's favorite stepchild, Dale Jr.  What will be the excuse in 2011 when he fails again?
Last Tuesday's announcement from Hendrick Motorsports, (HMS), regarding crew chief changes and team locations caught us all off guard. First off, kudos to team owner Rick Hendrick for finding a way to keep such a major move a secret. In this day and age of instant information, combined with side of mouth comments from anonymous sources, it's not easy keeping anything connected to NASCAR a secret.

The HMS realignment involves the following changes to the organization's four teams:

#5 team. Lance McGrew leaves the #88 team to become Mark Martin's crew chief.

#24 team. Alan Gustafson moves from Martin's team to become Jeff Gordon's chief.

#88 team. Steve Letarte moves from Gordon's team to become the new chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

#48 team. No changes for the five time champions.

Additionally Hendrick announced some changes to building locations for the teams. The shop occupied by the #5/88 teams will now become the home of the #5/24 teams. The #24/48 home will now be shared by the #48/88 teams.

During post announcement comments last Tuesday, Hendrick said "this will improve us as an organization, across the board. We had a championship season but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams. We've made the right adjustments, and I'm excited to go racing with this line up." Hendrick also said that the plan to implement these changes dated back to November 7th, right after the Texas race, when he held a company wide meeting.

The Hendrick announcement was only moments old when the speculation began that said a major shift of personnel of this nature was directly aimed at shoring up the troubled #88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick was very quick to point out that the #88 was not the only reason for these changes. Despite the fact that the #48 team won their fifth consecutive championship, and Hendrick's tenth title, the team owner pointed out that he felt the entire organization has grown complacent because of the organization's past success. He also noted that even the championship pairing of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were a little off this year.

Hendrick also noted that the new pairings of drivers and crew chiefs were based on the personalities of individuals and how they would mesh together. Hendrick also insisted that this was "not an Earnhardt move."

However, one cannot help but wonder if a major change like this is indeed an "Earnhardt move." We've all seen the 2010 season numbers from this team. They finished 21st in the final points standings based on no wins, three top five finishes and eight top tens. Earnhardt led a total of 185 laps in 36 races this year. He finished the season with an average start of 19, an average finish of 19 and an average lap completion of 99. Despite a dismal season those numbers are actually a slight improvement over the ones compiled in 2009. But the one number that cannot be ignored is the team's win less streak. Earnhardt and company hasn't seen a Sprint Cup victory lane since June of 2008.

A very famous movie line, delivered by Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke", once said "what we have here is a failure to communicate." One can't help but wonder if the driver's communication skills with his past two crew chiefs is a major part of the problem here. It's understandable for a frustrated driver to come over the radio and yell "this car is not driveable." But that driver has to back up the statement with pertinent facts regarding why the car is not handling correctly in order for the crew chief to make an informed decision on how to rectify the situation. In turn, the driver has to have confidence in his crew chief's ability and trust his decisions.

Is there indeed a failure to communicate within this #88 team? We've heard enough evidence, from in car radio transmissions, that says it may be true. We've heard enough reports alleging frequent arguments within the privacy of the car hauler between Earnhardt and McGrew. Is it fair to throw previous crew chiefs under the bus? No it's not. Both Tony Eury Jr and Lance McGrew tried their best to get the job done. Sometimes in racing communication, and general chemistry, just doesn't develop between driver and crew chief.

Can the arrival of Steve Letarte to the #88 team improve team communications? It's very possible. Letarte has the reputation of being a good leader along with the ability to display grace under fire. His presence with this team certainly can't hurt anything.

Still another aspect to the Hendrick Motorsports personnel change may involve the #88 team's long term, and very lucrative, relationship with its sponsors: Amp Energy Drink, Mountain Dew and the National Guard. Both the driver and the sponsors are on the same contract time frame and are locked in through the end of 2012. However, somewhere during the opening part of the 2012 season, Hendrick is going to want to start contract renewal talks with the sponsors. Some strong numbers, and performance improvements, from the 2011 season by Earnhardt and company will make those renewal talks easier.

There may be a variety of reasons for last Tuesday's personnel announcements from Hendrick Motorsports. But please don't try to tell me it's "not a Dale Earnhardt Jr move."

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