Hendrick shuffles the deck

by Monte Dutton

Jimmie Johnson isn’t actually perched alone at the top of NASCAR. His car owner, Rick Hendrick, has also won five consecutive championships.

While five straight championships as an owner doesn’t rival such attainment in a driver, it’s instructive to note that Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevys have won a total of 10 titles: five with Johnson, four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte. The total equals the all-time record of 10, won by Petty Enterprises with Richard (7) and Lee (3) Petty.

Hendrick, whose other business interests include an empire of automobile dealerships, never sits still. Johnson was the only one of his four drivers who won races last year. This led Hendrick to order an offseason shuffle of crew chiefs among the teams of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The team shuffle pairs crew chiefs Alan Gustafson with Jeff Gordon, Steve Letarte with Earnhardt and Lance McGrew with Martin.

“I think we just got complacent, and other teams were getting stronger and stronger,” said Hendrick. “We were not really where we needed to be, so we started to really try to step up our program in every area.”

The decision was based, Hendrick said, on a desire to “pair up people that I thought would be better together.”

Describing the changes only in terms of crew chiefs is incomplete. The actual change is in drivers linked to the respective teams. Gordon, who drives No. 24, is now aligned with the entire team, not just crew chief Gustafson.

“We are not changing the people in the shops,” said Hendrick. “The people in the ‘24’ and ‘48’ [Johnson] shops will remain the same. The only thing that will change is Jeff Gordon’s seat becomes Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s seat.

The cars, the people, will remain the same. The same is true in the other two shops [Earnhardt, Martin]. The only things changed were the seat, the driver, the sponsor and the number.”

Just having one team at the top isn’t enough to please Hendrick.

“We have to work a lot harder and a lot smarter,” he said. “I’m confident that the guys can and will do it. They’re really energized, so we’ll just see.”

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at ‘© 2011 King Features Syndicate

Car owner Rick Hendrick has won five straight championships with driver Jimmie Johnson, but his other three teams failed to win a race last season. (John Clark/ NASCAR This Week photo)