Changes Offer Junior Best Chance Yet at Comeback
The big exterior numbers have been changed outside the shop buildings, the drivers have gotten to know their new crew members, the new revamped team configurations have even been put through a dry run during the recent tire test at Daytona International Speedway. The opening of the 2011 Sprint Cup season is still a long way off -- 60 days remain until the Daytona 500 -- and by then, the results of the personnel changes made by Hendrick Motorsports after this recent campaign should feel comfortable and familiar.
They were more than driver and crew chief realignments; they were an attempt to re-balance an organization that, despite winning a fifth consecutive championship behind Jimmie Johnson, took a step backward in terms of overall strength. After being a title contender the year before, Mark Martin failed to make the Chase. After enjoying a fast start, Jeff Gordon faded at the end. After a riveting charge to second place in the final laps of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again settled deep in the points.
It's been difficult to watch, this plummet into mediocrity, especially for anybody who saw Earnhardt during his best years earlier this decade and knows of what he was once capable as a driver. But the past two seasons, with all the expectations and nothing to show for it, have certainly been trying for the man inside the No. 88 car. There were always the true believers out there who thought that the issue wasn't necessarily Earnhardt, but a somewhat awkward assimilation into Hendrick, a square peg being pounded into a round hole. Did he have the right people around him, the right kind of cars underneath him? Give him Chad Knaus and that No. 48 team, they'd argue, and you'd see what he could do.
That's about as viable as unicorns and leprechauns. But now, he's getting the next best thing -- Steve Letarte and what until a month ago had been the No. 24 team, a unit that's made the Chase every year since 2006, and won nine races along the way. Remember, this isn't a crew chief swap as much as it is a driver swap. Letarte isn't joining the No. 88 team; Earnhardt is joining the No. 24, re-branded with a different number and sponsor. And better yet, he'll work in the same facility with Johnson's team, the two programs sharing shop crewmen and cars, functioning on weekdays as a single entity just as the old 24/48 group did for so many years. Every day Earnhardt will walk into a building with championship banners hanging from the ceiling, and work with men with championship rings on their fingers.
It's not going to happen automatically. But Earnhardt now will work in an environment where success at a very high level isn't just hoped, it's expected. He won't have to look down the hill at the shop where the five-time champions are housed, he'll be in it. Earnhardt speaks often about wanting to become more professional. Well, Johnson and Knaus are as professional as they come, in the efficiency in which they conduct their business to how they communicate with one another over the radio on race day. And now, Earnhardt is joined to them at the hip.
"Being in that building with the 48 elevates them up a lot, motivates them a lot, too," said Gordon, who will now be paired with Martin in a 24/5 shop. "Certainly the pressure is on, no doubt about that. But I think that in order to make our whole organization better, that kind of effort's got to be put out for those guys .... It's not just that move that's going to make the magic happen. It's a combination of a big move happening, and the message it sends to our organization, and how it opens up the ability to get quality personnel added to the quality we have. That's what makes us stronger. If that shop gets stronger over there, and if Junior can step up, then it makes all of us better."
No question, Earnhardt bears some responsibility in this quest to become relevant again, and surely he knows it. But inserting him into Gordon's old No. 24 team, working side-by-side with the No. 48, offers a best-case scenario for potential improvement. Of course, there's another side to this, too -- what effect will the move have on Johnson's team? Many recall the tinkering Hendrick did with Martin's program prior to last year, moving an engineer over to the No. 88 and giving Gustafson more oversight of combined 5/88 efforts, all in an effort to bring Earnhardt up to speed with his shop-mate. Once the season began, Martin cratered. It wasn't necessarily a cause-and-effect, but it leaves fans of the No. 48 team asking a pertinent question: is Earnhardt capable of dragging down Johnson?
"I don't think that there's anything the 48 team would look at as something that would drag them down," Earnhardt said. "I think they're a little more confident than that. If anything, Jimmie should be able to maintain his success. We feel as a company that we all need to get better as a whole. That's another story. Obviously, we all across the board want to run much better than we did this year. And Jimmie would rather the championship battle not be as tight as it was going into the last race."
Johnson won the title by 39 points this season, and trailed Denny Hamlin entering the final two races, a stark change from previous championship campaigns where he's enjoyed triple-digit leads late in the year and been in complete control going to Homestead. Still: "From a selfish standpoint, over the last five years it's hard to say that the environment we had needed anything adjusted," Johnson said. "That's just from me. It's more than just me. So we'll just have to see how it goes."
Besides, Johnson said, it's not like his No. 48 team has been isolated from the whole Earnhardt saga just because they've been in a different facility. "They've been exposed to that and are familiar with that now. I don't think it's going to change much, being in the same building," he said. "The better my teammates run, the better I run, the better we all run. If we can have all four cars winning races and making the Chase and fighting for the championship, it's only making us better. So I'm excited. I'm hopeful."
So is Earnhardt, who was eager to begin working with Letarte and the new members of his revamped No. 88 team, and was the first driver on the track during the opening day of Goodyear tire testing last week at Daytona. Yes, the car number is the same, the team owner is the same, the sometimes suffocating expectations are the same. But for NASCAR's most popular driver, everything else is different. And this fresh start, in a new environment surrounded by new people, may represent his best hope yet of a comeback.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.