Chad Knaus, Steve Letarte Open Up About Hendrick Pit Crew Swap

Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) and Steve Letarte (Jeff Gordon) met with reporters Tuesday morning at Hendrick to explain why they decided to keep Sunday's mid-race pit crew swap in place for the remainder of the season.

Here are some burning questions about the move and how the crew chiefs responded:

How could Knaus turn his back on his entire pit crew after going through the season with them (and winning past championships with them)?

While Knaus said he understood that there were emotions involved in making the change, he compared switching the pit crews to switching a car part.

"I hate to say this as bluntly as it is, but it's like changing a spring or changing a shock," he said. "You have to put the best components together to try to win the championship. Unfortunately we're not in the situation where the 24 can win the championship right now from this building, and that's what it's about – this building."

The building he was referring to was the 24/48 shop at Hendrick, where crewmen operate as one group and work on cars for both teams. At the track, the two groups compete with one another, but the culture is that they're both part of the same team.

So to those who say Knaus was disloyal to his pit crew?

"Whoever says that has never seen how we operate here," he said. "They just haven't. How we operate here is completely different than how they do at other race teams. We operate as a team group. To mix these guys up a little bit is not a situation or a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination."

Letarte, while sympathetic to the emotions of both pit crews, said the decision to swap teams was similar to many of the behind-the-scenes decisions that take place during the week - just in the public eye.

"This (decision) is definitely large - it's big, it's in the media, it happened on live TV," Letarte said. "But it's no different than (deciding) setups we're going to run and how we're going to go to the racetrack."

How are the pit crews taking the news? Were they upset?

Knaus praised his group for acting professionally and said he was "blown away" and "amazed" at how well they reacted to the change.

Though he acknowledged that some crewmen may have felt "dejected a little bit" when the swap took place at Texas, he said by the time of a 2 p.m. Monday meeting to announce the news to the teams, "There was nobody mad, nobody upset – everyone was understanding."

"It was one of the coolest experiences (Monday) when we got all the guys together," Knaus said. "I haven't seen a light in the eyes of the (old) 48 guys like that in awhile. They're all excited about having a driver that's willing to just go out there and just punch and scrap and claw and fight, and they want to give Jeff a win."

Knaus predicted the change would spark a new energy in both teams, which is much needed over a long season –particularly when fighting for a fifth consecutive championship.

"There's a lot of wear and tear on people emotionally," he said. "...I think maybe the grind just got to them a little bit, and that's OK. That's just the way it is."

Why did the move happen now, with just two races left? If the pit crew was a problem, why weren't changes made earlier?

Knaus noted the change wasn't about individuals – thus a move such as swapping a jackman or tire changer wasn't made.

But as a group, the inconsistent pit stops got to the point where Knaus felt there was a chance to inject new life into his team for the stretch run.

The 24 team is more consistent as a whole, he said, which meant when the opportunity to make a change arose, "To not do that would be a mistake."

"We love our guys," Knaus said. "We eat, sleep, drink with them. We win with them, we lose with them – but ultimately, it's bigger than seven guys."

Knaus said that similar to a crew chief or driver, pit crews understand that racing is a performance-based business: Peform and win, or get replaced.

To that end, the system at Hendrick Motorsports is that there are multiple crewmen for each position. Both crew chiefs said every crew member knows there's continuing competition for their jobs – much like in the NFL.

"It's time (fans) understand, NASCAR's not what it was 10 years ago," Letarte said. "There's more than one quarterback for every football team, there's more than one receiver.

"We started this season with six tire changers, three jackmen, six tire carriers and more than two fuelers. They all competed for their starting positions, all compete every week. ... They're very professional. They put the team first; always have, always will."

Was Jeff Gordon OK with getting a new pit crew with two races to go? And did Rick Hendrick approve the move?

Letarte said he called Gordon before the news broke because "he has a right to know," but Gordon wasn't involved with the decision.

Gordon, according to the crew chief, asked Letarte: "Can we still win?"

Letarte replied "Absolutely" and explained his position that there were "way more pros for both car numbers that out-weigh the cons."

"He empowers me to run this race team," Letarte said of Gordon. "...I believe he has faith in me that I would not take a team to the race track that I did not think could win."

Noting the former 48 pit crew has been a part of six victories this season, Letarte said he didn't feel as though he was "taking an inferior group to Phoenix."

"I feel my chances are as good as they were last Friday," he said.

As for Hendrick? The team owner allows Letarte and Knaus to have "free reign" over their teams, Letarte said, and is supportive of every decision they make.

Knaus would not say whether the move would have an impact on next season, adding he was only worried about the next two weeks.

Does Knaus agree with rival crew chief Mike Ford's assertion that the swap was a "desperation move?" What did he think of Ford's smack talk that the No. 11 team is better than the 48?

Knaus said he hadn't paid attention to Ford's comments – nor was he worried about them – and noted, "My plate's been pretty full."

But he did have a response: "I don't know that they're a better team by any means. It's funny that they're more worried about us than worried about themselves. I think I would be worried about focusing on that 11 car instead of the 48. "

Told that Ford said the pit crew swap showed that it was more important for Hendrick to win as a company and not a team, Knaus responded, "Obviously, that's not a very good team over there then."

"If we start to think about the individuals here, we don't operate as a team," he said. "Especially in this building, we're thick as thieves."

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