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Hendrick Motorsports shakes up its crew chiefs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be paired with Steve Letarte next year in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Five-time winner Jimmie Johnson will stay with Chad Knaus.

November 23, 2010|By Jim Peltz

For the second time in two years, Hendrick Motorsports is giving Dale Earnhardt Jr. a new crew chief in hopes of finally getting the popular NASCAR driver back to Victory Lane.

Earnhardt — who is on a 93-race winless streak — next year will be paired with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, as part of shuffle of crew chiefs involving those two drivers and teammate Mark Martin, Hendrick said Tuesday.

Gordon's new crew chief is Alan Gustafson, who moves from Martin's car, and Martin's new crew chief is Lance McGrew, who shifts from Earnhardt's team.

Jimmie Johnson, the other Hendrick driver who won an unprecedented fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday, remains with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.

In addition, Hendrick said Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolets would now be built in the same shop as Johnson's No. 48 cars at Hendrick's Concord, N.C., headquarters, while Gordon's No. 24 Chevys would be built in the same shop as Martin's No. 5 cars. Previously, Gordon and Johnson shared the same building.

"We had a championship season [with Johnson], but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams," team owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. "We've made the right adjustments, and I'm excited to go racing with this lineup."

Earnhardt's slump long has baffled Hendrick, one of NASCAR's strongest teams.

Earnhardt and Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin and crew chief, moved to Hendrick from Earnhardt's family team at the start of the 2008 season. But by May, 2009, Earnhardt had only one win and Hendrick replaced Eury with McGrew.

But McGrew and Earnhardt never found a winning formula, either. Earnhardt, 36, finished 21st in points this season with only three top-five finishes.

Now McGrew is paired with Martin, 51, who is going into the last year of his contract with Hendrick. Martin finished 13th in points — missing the 12-driver Chase for the Cup championship playoff — and has gone 45 races without a win.

Gordon, a four-time champion, was the only Hendrick driver besides Johnson to qualify for this year's Chase. But Gordon also has been frustrated, going 65 races without a victory and finishing ninth in this year's standings with 11 top-five finishes.

Johnson, meanwhile, was asked by reporters earlier in the day whether he now was eyeing the record seven Cup championships won by both Richard Petty and Earnhardt's late father, Dale Earnhardt.

"If I can seam together seven in any shape or form to tie those two greats, I would be extremely honored," Johnson, 35, said on the conference call. "If I was ever able to surpass them, it would be out of this world.

"I do feel in my heart that we'll have a shot next year, but I don't know what those challenges are going to be, how competitive we'll be, what the competition's going to look like. I feel like I have my best chances at Hendrick Motorsports, with Chad Knaus as my crew chief."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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