Rick Hendrick has made a giant move for his organization.

Hendrick Motorsports Drivers React To Crew Chief Swap For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Crew Chief Change: 'I Needed This To Happen'

Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Hendrick Motorsports officials to keep him out of the decision-making process when it came to offseason personnel changes.

But after being told last week he'll now be driving for crew chief Steve Letarte and working with the former No. 24 team, Earnhardt Jr. said he's bursting with excitement about 2011.

"It's like knowing what you're getting for Christmas, but not being able to mess with it until that morning," he said Thursday in Las Vegas.

The change marks the end of an unsuccessful season and a half with former crew chief Lance McGrew, who is now working with Mark Martin.

Letarte, formerly with Jeff Gordon, brings a fresh, upbeat approach to what is now the No. 88 team. And as Earnhardt Jr. said, a "clean slate" has potential to do him some good.

"I think it's healthy," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We needed this to happen. I needed this to happen. And hopefully this...will get me back to winning races, running in the top five, running in the top 10.

"I know I can be that guy again – at least that good. This is a good opportunity to see if that can happen."

Fans and media alike often took note of the tumultuous relationship between Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew on the team radio, even though driver and crew chief kept insisting it was no big deal.

Was it?

"That's genuine," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We really did have a good bond. There was good trust and I really bought into the program and bought into Lance's opportunity and ability to lead us as a crew chief.

"And I think we did some good things, we just weren't moving along fast enough as far as getting productive and becoming better as a team. In this time and age, you gotta produce now. We feel that urgency and that responsiblity and that pressure."

Earnhardt Jr., who stopped by the former No. 88 shop last week to take his old crew members out for a goodbye/thank-you lunch, said any sniping between he and McGrew was out of frustration.

He said the two would sit down and talk about it, telling each other they were simply frustrated and not mad at the other person.

"We pretty much knew just things weren't working well," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We were very aware of what reality was and how we were running and how poorly things were going. And we were frustrated.

"We're pitted so closely together throughout the weekend that some of that's going to bounce off each other a little bit, but I never really took that personally from him."

Earnhardt Jr. said he and McGrew were "good friends" and they handled situations better than the driver did with his former crew chief, cousin Tony Eury Jr.

Letarte, though, brings an entirely different attitude. Optimistic and chatty, the 31-year-old crew chief brings a new energy that hasn't always been apparent with Earnhardt Jr.'s past crew chiefs.

"Me and Steve have been spending a lot of time together," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He overtalks a lot and you can't get in a word in around him, but if you can hack it, that's about the only bad thing about him. He's got a great disposition and a great personality. Everybody knows what kind of guy he is.

"I hope for me that being around him and his group and their professionalism will rub off on me, make me a better driver and make me a better person, more productive."

One possible change is already in the works. Letarte, who has a wife and two young children, told Earnhardt Jr. that his family listens to the team radio every Sunday through a home speaker system.

That may not be good for Earnhardt Jr., who has a penchant for cursing.

"I'm definitely going to have to change my vocabulary," he said, "if I can."


Jeff Gordon Reacts To Crew Chief Change, Comments On Alan Gustafson

Jeff Gordon applauded the changes made at Hendrick Motorsports last week, which left him paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson (formerly with Mark Martin) and sent Steve Letarte to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That team owner Rick Hendrick was willing to make the sweeping changes in the first place, Gordon said, was a sign of what made Hendrick such a great leader.

"This just shows the kind of commitment we have at Hendrick Motorsports," Gordon said in his first public comments since the change. "To be celebrating a championship on Sunday and be making those type of announcements two days later just shows that we never stop or rest. We're always trying to improve.

"You don't make a move like this without hoping you're making all the right ones. I feel really good about what we're doing."

Gordon billed the move as a driver swap rather than a crew chief swap, which is more accurate than saying he got a new crew chief. Gustafson and the former No. 5 team are staying the same, just with a new driver and different colored cars.

"I'm certainly looking forward to working with Alan," Gordon said. "I've known Alan for a number of years, always respected him and I guess in the back of my mind, I always thought it would be kind of cool to work with him. It's a great opportunity."

The decision wasn't Hendrick's alone, Gordon emphasized, and said everyone had input on the personnel changes. Hendrick "understands people better than anybody I've ever met," Gordon said.

Gordon stressed that he "loved" Letarte and that the move wasn't because the team had a down year.

"It's really no reflection of what type of year we had this year," he said. "We put out a great effort this year. Steve, I loved working with this guy. He's been awesome. It's a move that can elevate our whole organization, and that's what I'm excited about."

The Gordon/Letarte combination won 10 races together, including six in a stellar 2007 season (Gordon recorded 30 top-10 finishes that year). But in the last three seasons, Gordon has won just one race and went winless this year.

Now 39, Gordon has said he'll drive for a few more years – but is eager to pick up Cup title No. 5.

"I feel like we're going to win more championships," he said. "Things like this, led by Rick, are what get you there."


Instant Reaction: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin Change Crew Chiefs At Hendrick Motorsports

On the scale of NASCAR personnel changes, this is about as big as it gets.

Hendrick Motorsports not only switched the crew chiefs for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, but it rearranged its race shops to pair Gordon with Martin and Earnhardt Jr. with Jimmie Johnson.

Here's a driver-by-driver look at how today's news could affect each person:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Across the land, Earnhardt Jr. fans are screaming, "FINALLY!" Junior Nation was fed up with Lance McGrew, who moves from Earnhardt Jr.'s team to crew chief for Martin.

Together, Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew accomplished little and showed few signs of progress. Though each may be capable of winning individually, the driver and crew chief couldn't succeed together. Thus the change was made.

Earnhardt Jr. should have much more of a shot with Steve Letarte, who is an upbeat, energetic cheerleader-type of crew chief rather as opposed to the more hard-line, sarcastic McGrew.

On the days when Earnhardt Jr.'s car is struggling next year, don't expect to hear much sniping between Letarte and his driver. Keeping Earnhardt Jr. positive and focused will help the driver's morale and confidence if nothing else.

Letarte didn't win much with Gordon the last three years, but Gordon's cars were consistently strong and capable of running up front.

That Earnhardt Jr. will now be driving the same cars that have won five straight championships may be as significant a change as the new crew chief. Yes, Earnhardt Jr. won't have any excuses if he doesn't succeed – but it's doubtful he wants any.

This seems like a good move for Earnhardt Jr. fans.

Jeff Gordon – The biggest winner in all this may have been Gordon. Alan Gustafson is regarded inside the Sprint Cup garage as one of the elite minds – some put him on a level with Chad Knaus. Gustafson has crew chiefed for some very high profile drivers and been successful, which certainly gives hope to Gordon fans (what fans wouldn't love their driver to have a season like Martin did in 2009?).

Gordon and Letarte seemed to get along well, finding some measure of success, but ultimately didn't win a championship together.

As the pairing wasn't able to keep pace with the championship run of Knaus and Johnson despite being in the same shop, Gordon fans grew restless and questioned Letarte.

Gustafson is methodical and smart, and should get along with Gordon just fine. If a shakeup was what Gordon needed, he now has one of NASCAR's best crew chiefs atop his pit box.

Mark Martin – On the surface, this doesn't seem like a very positive move for Martin. He gives up Gustafson – a crew chief for whom he has often professed his love and admiration – in exchange for McGrew, who is less proven than Gustafson.

McGrew won't be able to talk back to Martin and challenge his driver like he did with Earnhardt Jr.; no one treats Martin that way. But perhaps a different tone and outlook could be beneficial to McGrew, who needs to succeed next year in order to make sure he has a spot as a Hendrick crew chief when Kasey Kahne arrives (likely with Kenny Francis in tow).

Martin fans will have to take a wait-and-see approach to the new pairing. Is Martin taking one for the team in his final year with Hendrick? He certainly seems to have come out on the short end of the stick by losing Gustafson.

Jimmie Johnson – The five-time defending Cup champion keeps Chad Knaus, but will now be working out of the same shop as Earnhardt Jr. instead of former mentor Gordon. How will that change the dynamic of Johnson's team?

In reality, it probably won't change much. Knaus and Letarte will still be working together running their shop (now the 48/88 shop instead of the 24/88), as they have done for all of Johnson's titles.

And Johnson's team will still have access to all the setups Gordon is running. Overall, this seems like a neutral move if you're a Johnson fan.

Rick Hendrick – No one wins 10 championships without having an excellent understanding of what makes a winning organization, and Hendrick waited only two days after winning his fifth straight title to make one of the boldest changes in years.

The man knows what he's doing and is brilliant at managing people. Clearly, he recognized that though Johnson's team was historically good, the other three cars weren't (none of them had wins this year).

It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say on Wednesday morning when he speaks with reporters, but this kind of move doesn't come without a lot of thought and consideration for what's best for his entire company.


Breaking News: Hendrick Motorsports Swaps Crew Chiefs For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin

Hendrick Motorsports made sweeping personnel changes in a stunning move announced Tuesday evening, swapping crew chiefs for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.

Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief will now be Steve Letarte, the enthusiastic young former Gordon crew chief. Gordon gets Mark Martin's old crew chief Alan Gustafson – known as one of the brightest minds in the garage – and Martin will be paired with Lance McGrew, who was with Earnhardt Jr. for the last year and a half (Earnhardt Jr. hinted Friday that he anticipated a crew chief change).

In addition, Hendrick announced that Earnhardt Jr.'s cars will now be fielded out of the same building as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson's. That means Earnhardt Jr. will be driving the same cars Johnson does.

Gordon and Martin's teams will be paired in the other building.

"This will improve us as an organization, across the board," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "We had a championship season, but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams. We've made the right adjustments, and I'm excited to go racing with this lineup."

The changes are effective immediately, the team said.

Hendrick will be giving more details in a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning.

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