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While rivals struggle to regain footing, Rick Hendrick and his men are looking stronger than ever

 Steve Letarte (L), explaining things to Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


   You want the inside scoop on NASCAR 2012?
   Easy: put your money on Rick Hendrick's guys.
   Yeah, yeah, that sounds like an easy call. Hendrick always has contenders. Ten championships since 1995, and all those wins.
   But as the new stock car racing season approaches, Hendrick's men look to have a leg up on the competition.

   Because the competition – the strongest rival team owners, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Roger Penske – are all in various shades of rebuilding and/or turmoil and/or economic malaise.
   Gibbs has to get Denny Hamlin back in form after a terrible 2011; he's got to shape up young Joey Logano; and he's got to keep tighter reins on Kyle Busch. And the engine program, well, that's undergone a shakeup too.
   Gibbs' guys may be in for a great season…but they've got to show something to prove it.
   Roush, who had the best overall operation in 2011, the best overall driver in Carl Edwards, also has something to prove. His sponsorship lineup has been depleted, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne still has yet to get a full-time Cup sponsorship, Roush has had to let 100 men go since the end of last season, and he's cut back to three Cup teams. And his Nationwide operation, long a bedrock part of the Roush game, is now struggling too for sponsorship.
   Roush men may respond to the situation admirably, of course. This is Ford Motor Company's lead dog in the NASCAR pack, and Doug Yates can do miracle work in the engine room. But, like Gibbs, Roush will have to show something to make the point.
   Childress too had a very good 2011, with Kevin Harvick having a great shot at the championship. But Harvick missed, and in response he in effect fired his whole team, crew chief and all. How that plays on morale? Well, Harvick is a big money player at Daytona, and new crew chief Shane Wilson is solid. Still, Childress has had to cut back from four Cup teams to three, and there have been some key losses, like competition director Scott Miller moving over to Michael Waltrip's operation.
   Childress' men may bounce back from this, certainly….but they'll have to show they can do that.
   Roger Penske, who got a wild card title challenger last season in Brad Keselowski, has had his own problems too – Kurt Busch, who abruptly split at the end of the season after perhaps one too many controversies. Plus Penske lost veteran crew chief Steve Addington, who moved to the Tony Stewart camp. AJ Allmendinger signed on quickly to take Busch's ride; but Allmendinger is still on the list of up-and-comers, and he still needs to make his own mark in this sport.

Team owner Rick Hendrick is all smiles as the new season approaches....perhaps because his rivals all appear to be struggling (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   All that appears to show that Hendrick's biggest rivals in this sport have issues and problems to overcome. "When you've got turmoil and change, that's a lot of distraction," Hendrick says diplomatically.
   Hendrick himself not only has Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus back again, and ageless Jeff Gordon, but he just added the smooth, cerebral and non-controversial Kasey Kahne, bringing along his own long-time crew chief Kenny Francis – whose new teammates say is adding some fresh, new ideas on the technological side.
   "I told our guys I've never gone into a season feeling as good about our organization as I do right now," Hendrick says.
   "The only thing that's new is Kasey, and he's been with Kenny Francis for a long, long time.
   "We've done our homework on our engines and on our cars, and there are no excuses. If we don't beat ourselves, we should have a really good year, and I expect to have all four teams in the chase. And I'll be disappointed if one of our guys doesn't win the thing."
   The only weak link in Hendrick's lineup would seem to be Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose travails are well known. But Earnhardt may be the sleeper here, considering how well he's taken to new crew chief Steve Letarte, and considering Earnhardt's own new work ethic: "I used to get out of the car at the track and head over to the motorcoach," Earnhardt says. "But now I'm in the hauler with Steve all day. I think it's made me a better driver. I don't think I was realizing my full potential.
   "Those things I might have thought were just trivial aren't trivial to him; they help Steve do his job.
   "He wanted me at the hauler early in the day, and at first I was grumbling about it. But he was like 'Hey, this is the deal. This is the way it is.'
  "Once we got to doing that, I understood. And I found that place to be enjoyable and wanted to be there. Plus Steve is a good guy to be around.
   "Pops (Tony Eury Sr., one of Earnhardt's long-time crew chiefs) was more like a drill sergeant; Steve is more like a cheerleader.
   "Steve has his expectations and his rules: 'I need this from you.' And that was good, man. I was like 'Hell, yeah.'
   "I told Steve in this off-season that I was worried he might relax a little on that; the more we're together, the more we become friends, that he might let me off the hook. And I don't want that to happen.
  "Steve deserves a lot of credit. He's taken on a tough job; this is a tough gig. But he's done well with it."

The boss and NASCAR's most popular driver. Is a Daytona 500 victory in the cards for Dale Earnhardt Jr.? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Hendrick calls Letarte's style 'tough love.'
   "I just wish I'd put Steve and Dale Jr. together sooner," Hendrick says.
   "Jeff Gordon sat down with me in 2005 and made sure I understood to treat him like any other driver on any Saturday night," Letarte says. "So I managed him like that…and I guess that's become my style."
   Earnhardt and Letarte winning the Daytona 500? Well, everyone saw how well Earnhardt and Johnson worked together at Daytona and Talladega last season, in the two-car drafts. This season without the radio overload on drivers, without the ability for any driver to pick and chose his radio-mates, that should put more of a premium on driver instinct in quick-reaction situations, like a late race break.
   So how is Earnhardt going to approach Daytona?
   "I don't know, none of us know…until we get into practice and the Shootout and see what kind of racing we'll be doing," Earnhardt says. "Once we do that, then we can start to form ideas about strategy.
   "What's going to happen is out of my control, to be honest with you. Can't make a game plan until we know what the racing is going to be."
   Letarte has his ideas about what to expect during SpeedWeeks: "I don't think you'll be able to pick your partner; the two-car tandem thing is relatively gone, and I think you'll see 'pack racing.'
  "And when it's time to go, I don't think you'll be able to say 'Okay, I'm going to go with you.' You're going to go with whoever is there in front of you.
  "Now if you can tell me who's going to be in front with five to go, then that's who I want to test with. But I don't think you're going to have 490 miles to form these alliances.
   "Now maybe we'll have a tandem here or there, and maybe coming to the checkered (like Jeff Burton and teammate Clint Bowyer at Talladega last fall).
   "The tandem is still going to be faster than the pack; NASCAR just wants to limit that, which is why NASCAR is working (limiting) the cooling.
   "Physics is physics, and you can't change the physics.
   "When it's chaos and two-to-go in the Daytona 500, man, you'll pick whatever lifeboat is going to the front.
  "And I've got to work with two of the best 'pack racers' ever, in Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr.
   "We'll see how the Shootout goes (Feb. 18th), and then we'll just have to see how the rest of SpeedWeeks goes."
  The bottom line, Letarte says he understands his role in all this: "Dale Jr. is a guy who will give you 110 percent every lap…and my job is to make sure he gives me 95 percent.
   "He's a remarkable talent. And his desire to win races is unbelievable. My job is to make sure we keep that under control for 500 miles.
   "And what we've done a good job of is staying in the races for 500 miles."
  What to expect at Daytona? No one really seems to know....except that two cars are still faster than the pack (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Roush cars are the Daytona

Roush cars are the Daytona pole, not Hendricks'

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