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Hendrick Motorsports swaps drivers, crew chiefs
By Matt Taliaferro
As Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made the media rounds following their fifth championship victory on Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports is getting back to work. In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Hendrick Motorsports announced a massive team and personnel shake-up for the 2011 season primarily effecting driver/crew chief pairings.
Lance McGrew, who has guided the No. 88 team and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a season and a half, has been assigned as crew chief to the No. 5 car and Mark Martin.
Alan Gustafson moves from Martin’s team — a group that he won five races with in 2009 but zero in ’10 — to assume crew chief responsibilities for four-time champ Jeff Gordon (winless in 2010).
Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, moves to the highly visible crew chief spot for Dale Earnhardt and the No. 88 team.
Johnson and Knaus, as they did at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday — flew above the fray, remaining intact in pursuit of a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title.
In addition to the driver/crew chief swap, shop changes were also announced. No longer will Gordon share space in the famed "248" shop with Johnson. Gordon’s 24 will be moved down the road with Martin’s No. 5 team. The crew chiefs — Gustafson and McGrew — will continue to work under one roof.
Earnhardt’s No. 88 cars will now be assembled alongside Johnson’s No. 48 machines, with Knaus and Letarte continuing to share shop space.
Team owner Rick Hendrick will hold a conference call with the media at 9:00 am EST on Wednesday morning to further address the moves.
Big Winner: Gordon. Knaus’ five titles aside, Hendrick has referred to Gustafson as the brain of the group, and Martin has gushed about him since Day 1. This will be the move that puts Gordon back into serious title contention.
Wait and See: Martin/McGrew. By all accounts, Martin was happy with the crew chief he had. McGrew had an unenviable job as head wrench of the 88, no doubt, but the truth is nothing seemed to get better.
Th Martin/McGrew pairing will most likely be split up following the 2011 season to make way for Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis. Hendrick must be looking at the future Gordon/Gustafson/Kahne/Francis shop as a can’t-miss winner.
This Oughta be Interesting: Letarte. Tony Eury Jr., then Lance McGrew. If a crew chief doesn’t get Junior to Victory Lane — and fast — Junior Nation revolts. Letarte couldn’t have believed he would have had as big of an assignment in his career than CC'ing for the legendary Jeff Gordon. Well guess what, Stevie ...
Kicked Back with a Beer: Jimmie and Chad. Those two are still probably partying. Or still taking pictures. But Knaus still has his shop mate in Letarte, and Junior and Jimmie have, well, each other I guess (can you say "odd couple?"). Still, the right move is surrounding Junior with greatness if Hendrick is serious about making the 88 his top priority — as he said prior to the 2010 season.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro