When Rick Hendrick and his team decided after last season – he insists it wasn’t just his decision – to juggle drivers and crew chiefs, it wasn’t spur of the moment.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus would remain together on the No. 48 team, figuring five straight Sprint Cup championships weren’t to be trifled with, though crew members were changed.
The dramatic moves came elsewhere, pairing crew chief Alan Gustafson with Jeff Gordon, shifting Lance McGrew from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Mark Martin and sending Steve Letarte, Gordon’s former crew chief, to work with Earnhardt.
Two races into the season, Hendrick and his team like where they’re headed, especially after Gordon ended a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix International Raceway.
“When you make the decision, then it’s up to the guys to make it work and I didn’t do it all by myself,” Hendrick said Sunday after Gordon’s 83rd career victory.
“This organization is really one team of four cars. People say it sometimes and don’t really mean it but these guys work shoulder to shoulder.”
Hendrick said he looked at personalities when the decision was made to shuffle the drivers and crew chiefs. He wanted Letarte’s “rah-rah” attitude with Earnhardt. He paired McGrew and Martin because both are technicians.
That put Gustafson and Gordon together and it clicked.
“It’s early. By summer you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake, but right now the chemistry looks really good in the teams and we are competitive every week,” Hendrick said.
For Gordon, the Phoenix victory was just his second since the 2007 season but it reinforced the notion that the 39-year old hasn’t lost the ability to win.
He chased down super-aggressive Kyle Busch over the final 20 laps, gently nudged Busch's car up the track and cruised to a victory that had thousands standing and cheering after it was over.
“I think we needed to do something to rejuvenate our whole group,” Hendrick said. “I think I see every one of our guys stepping up. I think Jeff sees this as an opportunity with Alan that he’s got something to prove and I think that’s a good thing.”
The communication between Gordon and Gustafson was crucial on a weekend that started poorly for all the Hendrick cars. None was particularly fast in the Friday practice sessions and none qualified inside the top 20.
The teams kept working, tweaking their cars. Gordon said when the green flag dropped, he knew he had a car capable of winning.
“Jeff Gordon was perfect in the car,” Gustafson said.
When it was over, Gordon said he was unusually emotional. He stopped short of crying, he said, but his chin was trembling. With his 40th birthday approaching in August, the one-time whiz kid felt the burden of not winning like he did a decade earlier.
“There was a lot of pressure on us, not just this year (to win) early but going back the last 66 races that we had not had a win,” Gordon said.
“You hear it from the media, you hear it from the fans and it’s hard to ignore that. It’s on all of us. I think when you’ve had the success that we have had in the past…
“I guess every race driver knows that there’s going to be that time in their life when they are not going to go to Victory Lane again and you don’t know when that time is going to come. I was hoping that time (for me) was not now.”