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Rick Hendrick's Big Gamble: Will it pay off?

  Will shaving the beard help change Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s luck? Will Rick Hendrick's shakeup make the son of the legend a winner again? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Will Rick Hendrick's big shakeup make everything good again?
   Three of his four drivers, all but Jimmie Johnson, will be running for new teams and new crew chiefs, after those three went winless in 2010.
   Bigger question: Can Hendrick get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to victory lane?

   Indeed, the long-standing Earnhardt enigma is one of the keys behind the shakeup. This will be Earnhardt's fourth season with Hendrick and so far nothing much has seemed to work. Earnhardt has been through a few crew chiefs since his last great season, 2004, and nothing much has really clicked.
   This time the man shouldering the burden is Steve Letarte.
   And of course Hendrick himself.


Lance McGrew: It didn't work with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Can Mark Martin and McGrew get to victory lane together? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   A losing skid isn't easy to deal with for any man at this level. Throw in the 10th anniversary of the death of his father, and all the emotional baggage that entails, and pressure....
   How will Hendrick and Earnhardt get through this Daytona 500?
   "For Dale Jr. the scrutiny never has let up," Hendrick points out. "I don't know how it could be even more than it has been – every race, every week, everywhere.
   "For his fans and everyone else.
    "Everyone expects me and Dale to wave some magic wand and he'll lead every lap and win every race.
   "Jeff Gordon didn't win a race last year. Carl Edwards didn't win a race until right at the end....
    "There are so many guys who have (bad) streaks, and then they hit it and comeback.
   "Dale is just under the microscope every minute now. Dale is hardened to that fact. I feel for him.
   "I don't even know how you can go to Daytona....I have a hard time going to Martinsville. Everybody handles it their own way.
   "I can't tell you how I can handle what he is trying to handle, in carrying on his father's name, and carrying on a business himself, and make everybody happy.
    "And the sport needs him to do well. So he's getting it from everything. No safe zone.
    "But you've got to take the good with the bad, and if you're the most popular, well, that comes with baggage.
   "Now if we'd done what we thought we'd do (over these past three seasons).....well, I'm not satisfied at all. Last year was not good anywhere.
   "I've gotten used to having to answer the questions – but the pressure is there even if you don't ask me the questions.
   "Dale and I have talked: Look, the people that love you are going to love you, and the people that don't, let 'em blame me. And they do."
   Hendrick laughs: "I told him I figured it'd be about six races before I got my butt whipped by the fans.....
   "He knows I'm there for him. And we've been to the bottom, so...."

    Alan Gustafson (L): He and Mark Martin came close to winning the 2009 Sprint Cup championship. Now Gustafson will be running with Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Hendrick not only has to get Earnhardt on track but Mark Martin and Gordon too.
    Still that shakeup was so big it was breathtaking.
    "Maybe this will fire up everybody...because it puts everybody on point," Hendrick says.
   "I just feel the chemistry throughout the place is good; everybody has something to prove.
   "Last year we took some things for granted. Maybe we were in a bunker mentality, because of the economy and the world and all, and didn't pay enough attention.
    "We were behind in a lot of areas last year, and we had to catch up. And I could at the end of the year that we were catching up in some areas.
   "But all I can say is this year I'm determined.
   "Can I guarantee you I'll have all four cars in the chase? I can guarantee if I don't, I'll keep working at it."


    Rick Hendrick's men: Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson (L-R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Why these pairings? What's Hendrick's thinking?
   "I believe a lot in 'management by strengths,' that we use in the car business: you look at the characteristics of the guys and you match 'em up," Hendrick says.
   "I felt Dale going into Jimmie's shop, with Chad (Knaus) and Steve working in tandem, is going to give Dale the confidence that he's got the best stuff we've got.
   "Dale doesn't show as much enthusiasm at times as I do, but he's excited about this year. And he knows we've addressed a lot of the questions.
   "If we give Dale the equipment, he can win every restrictor plate race. And he's really good on the 1-1/2-mile tracks (Las Vegas, Charlotte), and he's really good on the flat tracks (Phoenix comes early this season). We'll get better.
   "Jeff and Alan (Gustafson) think a lot alike, and I felt that was good chemistry.
   "Lance (McGrew) and Mark have won together. And Mark has made comments about how sharp Lance is, and Lance has said how he idolizes Mark. To me that was the right fit.
   "Of course the honeymoon is still going on. And until we've run four or five races, or 10 races, they won't know if they've solved all their problems.
   "Sometimes if you come back the same you just stay the same.
   "All the players are good players and good drivers. But we needed something to stimulate us. We needed a reason to get excited about this year.
   "And more than that, I felt the matchups were great.
   "It's not like these guys don't know each other. They all debrief together, and work together at tests, and sometimes drive the other guy's car.
   "So I feel good about it."

   But the landscape of the competition, just judging from last year, where 12 drivers, from eight different organizations, won tour events, Hendrick will have his hands full, even if things go smoothly.
    Of those 12 winners, none was named Gordon, Martin or Earnhardt.
   "Last year was the most competitive year I've ever seen, and I think this year will be even more competitive," Hendrick says, with a nod toward some of seemingly minor rules tweaks, like E-15 and new gas cans and longer pit stops, that could well make the early season filled with upsets.
    "It's just not as easy as it used to be. But we're going to keep working till we get it.
    "You just do the best you can, and deal with it."


    Mark Martin, showing no signs of slowing down. What can he and new crew chief Lance McGrew do in 2011 for Rick Hendrick (L) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

I think the changes might

I think the changes might work for at least some of the teams, and maybe all. Jimmie has the most to lose. Let's see if Chad gets distracted by the media frenzy that will accompany the new team moving into his garage.

I am not much of a fan of the Hendrick organization, but I would like to see Mark win a title. But that is a long shot. He is on the team that is on the bottom rung over there now.

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