DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As Jimmie Johnson celebrated another NASCAR championship in November, car owner Rick Hendrick was already thinking ahead.
He was calculating moves to make Johnson and his three teammates better. It didn’t take Hendrick long to figure them out, either.
Two days after Johnson hoisted his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup trophy, Hendrick made significant changes to his organization. It’s the kind of shop swap that could keep NASCAR’s most dominant team, Hendrick Motorsports, atop the ultra-competitive racing world.
“We needed to shake it up and have a real reason to come back with some enthusiasm and some self-inflicted pressure,” Hendrick said. “We were behind in a lot of areas, so we had to catch up.”
Catch up? Hendrick? Really?
By Hendrick’s standards, the four-car team fell way behind in 2010. Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were winless.
Gordon, a four-time series winner, was mostly a non-factor and finished ninth in points. Martin and Earnhardt failed to make the 12-man Chase for the championship and finished 13th and 21st, respectively.
The mediocre results came a year after Johnson, Martin and Gordon gave Hendrick an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the final points standings.
So Hendrick responded by moving everyone except Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.
Earnhardt, who has just one victory in three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, was paired with Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte. Earnhardt moved into the same shop as Johnson and Knaus, and Hendrick believes Letarte’s strong personality will help rebuild the waning confidence of NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“Everything is new,” Earnhardt said. “Sort of wipe the slate clean, so I’m a little nervous. But I think we’ll be able to carry it.”
Gordon was teamed with Martin’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
“When a move that big is made, it sparks up a lot of conversation about why would that have happened and what caused that to happen,” Gordon said.
Martin switched to Earnhardt’s crew chief, Lance McGrew. Earnhardt and McGrew spent the last 60 races together, extending Earnhardt’s losing streak to 93. Martin and McGrew have worked together previously and even won a Nationwide race in Las Vegas in 2008.
“Magic is sort of intangible,” Martin said. “It’s not something you can reach out and touch, and we had magic going on in 2009 and we had magic going on in 1998 and I am aware of it. And I am working hard to try and create it and maintain it through 2011 with Lance and my team.”
Johnson’s team got an adjustment, too. Hendrick shook up Johnson’s entire pit crew in hopes of fixing the most noticeable chink in the defending champ’s armor.
“This team is tough,” Knaus said. “We’ve got the depth at Hendrick Motorsports that allows us to go out there and make changes and seamless changes to our cars and our race teams where it doesn’t affect us too much.”
Hendrick called a companywide meeting after the Nov. 7 race at Texas, where Johnson’s crew was benched in the middle of the event and Denny Hamlin outran the No. 48 team to take the lead in the championship standings. No personnel decisions were made during that meeting.
But it certainly was the catalyst for Hendrick’s overhaul.
So far, the reviews have been strong.
Earnhardt and Gordon swept the front row in qualifying for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, and all four cars were fast in practice Wednesday. Earnhardt, though, wrecked during the session, moved to his third car of Speedweeks, and will have to start in the back of the pack Sunday.
Otherwise, there have been few issues.
“Hey, the honeymoon’s still going on,” Hendrick said. “Until they’ve run four or five races or 10 races they think they’ve solved all their problems. Sometimes, if you come back the same, you stay the same. We needed something to stimulate us and a reason to get excited about this year.”
Hendrick made improving Earnhardt’s team his top priority before the 2010 season, but marrying the No. 88 with Martin’s No. 5 team didn’t work the way he had planned. It also hurt Martin’s production.
Now, Hendrick is trying to get three teams back up to speed with Johnson and Knaus. Not many would consider such bold changes, but Hendrick had to take plenty of chances to rise to the top of the sport in the first place.
“We’re going to be better. I just feel it,” Hendrick said. “We took some things for granted. Maybe we were in the bunker mentality a little bit a year ago because of (our success in) ’09, and the economy and everything else and just watching the world, and didn’t pay enough attention to we needed to work harder.”