(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)
The phone conversation between NASCAR team owner, Rick Hendrick, and crew chief Alan Gustafson was brief and to the point.
“Hey man,” Gustafson said Hendrick told him,” the 88 has got to run good, capiche?” “Sure thing, boss.”
Hendrick Motorsports, clearly the most successful race team in NASCAR, ended 2009 with a very serious organizational problem. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon ended the season with the trifecta, 1-2-3 in the points, but superstar Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished a very distant 25th place in the standings.
Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, went winless in his heavily sponsored HMS #88 AMP/National Guard Chevy in 2009. Dale, Jr. notched only 5 top ten finishes, got his cousin Tony Eury, Jr., fired as his crew chief, and suffered his most self-confidence rattling season in his 10 year NASCAR career.
It was quite clear that getting the Earnhardt’s team back on pace with the other three HMS teams was a top priority in the off season for HMS. Although it is a company-wide effort, the task of making that happen falls to Earnhardt, Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew and Alan Gustafson, who led Mark Martin to five wins and a runner-up in the Cup standings.
Why would Martin, Gustafson, and the whole #5 team agree to this task, rebuilding the #88 team that was so lost and lacking direction, when they are just a step or two away from winning the Sprint Cup themselves? That task required a total restructuring of shop practices, which sent Gustafson’s lead engineer and key mechanic over to McGrew’s team.
The answer is very simple. “The success of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is very near and dear to Mr. Hendrick’s heart and these two cars have to perform. It is his responsibility and it is my responsibility,” Gustafson said motioning to McGrew. “If that 88 car doesn’t succeed this year, then the 5 car isn’t going to succeed, either.”
The Hendrick complex differs from most other race teams. Not all four teams are housed in the dame building. The #48 and #24 teams, Johnson and Gordon, are housed in one building. They established a system of sharing and efficiency from the very beginning. That routine has never been disturbed.
When Hendrick merged the #5 and #25( now #88) teams into one building, things were never as smooth as with the #24 and #48 teams. The drivers changed, the crew chiefs changed, and re-creating the chemistry of the #24/#48 teams was very difficult. Hendrick wanted the two buildings to operate the same when Dale, Jr. came onboard. But that didn’t happen.
With Dale, Jr. came his cousin, Tony Eury, Jr. and several new employees and they had their own way of doing things. Even though they were willing to adapt to the Hendrick system, not everything fell into place with Gustafson’s practices.
So when the wheels fell off the #88 team, Hendrick knew that he had to demand that the 5/88 shop had to fall into place once and for all. It was apparent to both teams and neither needed convincing!
If there weren’t enough pressure already on the 5/88 teams,those two teams have a daily reminder looming above them every day they are in the shop. Jimmie Johnson’s office is not in the 24/48 building, but instead in the long hallway above the 5/88 shop floor. On display in the window is the four consecutive championship trophies, and if the sun hits them just right the glare will blind you!
The crews see these trophies daily and what could be seen as an “in your face”‘ kind of reminder is really viewed as motivation. “Motivation can be a very positive thing,” chimed McGrew!
The two crew chiefs are approaching the 2010 season as if they are on team. Both McGrew and Gustafson are using plans and procedures as if everything and everyone is interchangeable. Both Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are onboard with the plan, as well.
Dale, Jr. has nothing to lose and has no choice but to buy into this plan. There is nowhere to go but up, and he is putting his faith in Lance McGrew. He fully believes that his crew chief will have it turned around by the time the season opens in February for the Daytona 500.
Only time will tell!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!