It certainly was no surprise Rick Hendrick assigned Dale Earnhardt Jr. a new crew chief last week but the scale of the changes within Hendrick Motorsports provides even more insight into Hendrick's fantastic success.
The Boss decided his teams had become too complacent after a 1-2-3 (Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon) Sprint Cup finish in 2009. Johnson, at least by his standards with Chad Knaus, struggled to a historic fifth consecutive championship. But Martin and Gordon joined Junior in the winless column.
Thus, The Big Shuffle.
Gordon, with only one win in the last three seasons, gets Alan Gustafson from Martin's No. 5 crew. Martin now will work with Lance McGrew, who had been with Junior's No. 88. And Dale has been assigned Steve Letarte, pegged by Hendrick for this perhaps thankless job, at least in part because of his people skills. I take that to mean the ability to get inside Junior's head.
But I think the most insightful thing we learned about the Hendrick Method was he kept Knaus and Letarte together in the same building. What had become somewhat legendary as the "24-48" shop -- where the Gordon and Johnson cars were built and prepped by what Knaus described as inter-changeable crews -- now will be the "48-88" shop. I have to believe Knaus wanted to keep that internal chemistry intact. Gordon's No. 24 now moves into the building with Martin's No. 5.
Who knows? Maybe some of the No. 48's magic will rub off on the No. 88. On the other hand, if Johnson has a bad season in '11, well, you can bet the pundits will start pointing even more fingers at Junior.
I'll be at the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards in Las Vegas this weekend and will share my reporting and observations here next week.
Last week I listed my top 12 drivers of 2010. Here's my friend Mark Armijo's top five as written for RacinToday.com:
[ more next Monday . . . ]