Comparing it to making a change to the suspension or the setup, crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte said they are trying to improve both of the teams in the Jimmie Johnson-Jeff Gordon shop at Hendrick Motorsports by swapping crews for the final two races of the season.
The swap began in the middle of Sunday’s Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Knaus, upset that his crew had slow pit stops on Johnson’s car, replaced the crew with the guys who were pitting the car of Gordon, who had crashed out of the race.
On Monday, Knaus and Letarte decided to make the switch permanent for the final two races of the season.
“It’s like changing a spring or a shock,” Knaus said Tuesday at the Hendrick Motorsports shop. “You have to put the best components together to try to win the championship.
“Unfortunately, we’re not in a situation where the 24 [of Gordon] can win the championship right now from this building. And that’s what it’s about – this building. We have to take away from those guys right now.”
Letarte said he didn’t view it as having something taken away from him because Knaus and him manage the crew members for both teams.
“They’re still our pit crew because we manage them both,” Letarte said. “He’s just going to take a different group over the wall than he did last race. Change is good. … They are a very strong group.
“They are the same seven that have won six races this year [for Johnson]. They have a lot of potential.”
Knaus and Letarte made the decision with support of Hendrick Motorsports management. Only the over-the-wall crewmen have changed. The rest of the weekend crew remain the same.
“We’re a crew-chief led company,” Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Marshall Carlson said. “These four crew chiefs really have the authority and capability to influence the performance of their team.
“They’re the tip of the spear, crew chief and the driver. We’ve given them the latitude and the capability to pull in whatever they need to perform.”
Neither Johnson nor Gordon have performed in the Chase For The Sprint Cup the way they’ve wanted. Four-time Cup champion Gordon is out of title contention while Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion, is second in the standings, 33 points behind leader Denny Hamlin with two races left in the season.
Johnson could have lost more ground in the standings if he didn’t have two quick pit stops late in the race by the crew that had started the day with Gordon. If Gordon hadn’t crashed, Knaus said he might not have made the swap during the race.
“It was a unique situation. … They’re crashed out, they’re sitting there and our guys are struggling,” Knaus said. “To not do that I think would be a mistake.”
Knaus also said the decision was not made lightly.
“It’s a difficult situation, for sure,” Knaus said. “There are a lot of emotions involved, but I think the thing everybody has to realize when we set up this team, it was a one-team situation. That’s what we are and always have been.
“We’ve had crew members from the 24 pit the 48. We’ve had mechanics on the 48 pit the 24. It’s always been like that. And we’re going to continue to work that way. We set it up at the first of the year that we’re going to have five or six tire changers, three or four jackmen for the 24 and the 48. That was explained to those guys at the first of the year and everybody understands that.”
Both Knaus and Letarte said the crew members have remained upbeat. Although there were reports that a member of Johnson’s crew quit, Knaus said that wasn’t the case, that the crew member went and helped pack Gordon’s pit box.
And Letarte swears he’s not upset about the move.
“I don’t feel I’m taking an inferior group to the race track,” Letarte said. “I feel our chances to win at Phoenix are as good as they were on Monday, as good as they were on Friday. … We have two races left to go and we definitely wouldn’t do anything to hurt either car. We make decisions all week long that effect both cars.
“This one is definitely large. It is big and in the media, it happened on live TV, but it’s no different than the setups we’re going to run and how we go to the race track. Chad and I pride ourselves in how much we work together to build these two cars the way they are.”
The way Hendrick Motorsports is structured, the bonus money earned by the performance of any team is the same for all employees. So if Johnson wins the championship, all of the Hendrick employees get a championship bonus.
“I can be a member of the 48 race team [of Johnson] or I can be someone in the chassis shop constructing the cars or someone in the engine shop, the bonus is absolutely the same,” Carlson said. “That’s how we operate. That creates a lot of cohesion and unity.”
In fact, Letarte has championship rings from Johnson’s titles.
“I’m extremely disappointed the 24 hasn’t run for championships with the 48,” Letarte said. “I take personal responsibility for that. I wear the 24 colors. But at the same token, they give me a 48 ring. I get to go to [the banquet] with everybody else. When these two cars win, I’m very proud of it.”
Knaus and Letarte met with the crews Monday.
“There was nobody mad or upset,” Knaus said. “I think you’re going to see energy from the 48 team that you haven’t seen in some time. … I hadn’t seen a light in the eyes like that of the [former] 48 guys for a while. They’re really excited to have a driver that’s willing to go out there and punch and scrap and claw and fight, and they really want to get Jeff a win.
“It’s really neat to see. The guys on the 24 side are really excited. They want to go out there and try to contribute from their side of things to help the 48 win the championship.”