Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hendrick shuffles crew chiefs and teams for 2011

Just days after winning his 10th championship, Rick Hendrick has swapped the crew chiefs for 75 percent of his organization and switched which teams will work in the same shop together for the 2011 season.

Steve Letarte will move from Jeff Gordon’s #24 team to lead Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team. Earnhardt Jr.’s former crew chief Lance McGrew will take the position with Mark Martin’s #5 team previously held by Alan Gustafson, who will call the shots for Gordon in 2011.

The only team left intact this offseason is the championship winning #48 team with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. However, it is still unclear whether the old #48 pit crew will return to pit Johnson’s car in 2011 or if it will remain with the #24 group. Also, the #48 team will be affected by the changes because it will no longer be able to work side-by-side with the #24 team. Instead, the often dysfunctional #88 team will move in alongside.

Obviously, Hendrick wants to make Earnhardt Jr. as competitive as possible, but is he risking the overall success of his organization to do so? The #48 and #24 teams have both finished in the top 10 in the final standings in eight out of the last nine seasons, or every year but one of Johnson’s career.

The main issue at hand is the performance of the #88 team. If Earnhardt Jr. had made the Chase and Martin came nowhere close, I don’t think we would have seen these changes. Overall, as with most changes, there are pros and cons to the move.

First, if Earnhardt Jr. isn’t successful in 2011, he’s never going to be successful at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick promised in 2010 to give the #88 team all of the resources necessary to put a competitive car on the track, yet Earnhardt Jr. was rarely in contention at any race. So, now Hendrick has gone to the edge. He broke up the dynasty that was the 24/48 shop. The success out of that shop has been unmatched in the sport for a decade, but now it may finally come to an end.

For those who love to hate Johnson and Gordon, 2011 might be the year those two slip. Knaus and Johnson will still be right at the top of the standings in 2011, but they will also be carrying the weight of the #88 team, even though Letarte and Knaus will still be able to work together. I guess we’ll finally find out whether it’s the driver or the car that hasn’t been able to make the #88 team go.

Overall, the crew chief change will probably work out well for Gordon, because Gustafson knows what he is doing on top of a pit box. That guy is good. However, the other two moves might not work out quite as well.

If Letarte hasn’t been able to win with Gordon in almost two years, why would he suddenly find Victory Lane with Earnhardt Jr.? But, the most confusing move in all of this is the thought of McGrew working with Martin. I just don’t see those two personalities meshing very well. McGrew is a tough guy who was brought in to bring some discipline to the #88 team and get away from the family/buddy team Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. had assembled.

Martin is a professional in every sense of the word, and he doesn’t need a hard-nosed guy to lead his team. At this point, Martin also knows what he needs out of a car better than almost any driver in the field, and a technical guy on the pit box can work with him to dial it in. McGrew is not that type of guy. He is there to motivate people, something Martin does not need.

Maybe these changes won’t noticeably affect the performance of the Hendrick cars, but the door is now open for the Hendrick dynasty to come to an end. NASCAR has hurt itself in the past decade by making short-sighted changes; maybe Hendrick just made such a change.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rating the Ford 400: 4 Stars ****

The 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship came down to the wire Sunday in Homestead. The then-four-time-defending champion stepped into the #48 car in second place in the points standings, but once again jumped out on top. The championship race at Homestead gets a 4 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, the #48 team and the #24 pit crew. This was by far the most challenging championship season for this group. In the past, they had dominated the competition by so much throughout the first nine Chase races that they could come to Homestead and cruise to victory. However, this time they had to go out and take it from the grasp of Denny Hamlin and the #11 team.

This race certainly didn’t go as planned for any of the championship contenders. It did, however, for Carl Edwards. The #99 car took the lead on lap 4 and led 190 total laps to dominate the final race of the season. Martin Truex Jr. had a car that could hang with Edwards, but a cut tire on a restart with 68 laps to go took the #56 car out of contention and ended a mediocre season for that group.

So, qualifying did matter. As Hamlin tried to make his way through the field after starting 37th, he pushed the issue and spun down the backstretch after contact with Greg Biffle on lap 23 that started a tough day for the #11 team. Hamlin admitted before the race he was nervous, and those nerves may have come into play and resulted in the wreck. They say you have to lose one before you can win one, and that was true for Johnson, so maybe this is just part of the learning and maturation process for Hamlin. One thing is for sure, a Joe Gibbs Racing car is going to be in contention for many years to come.

With 81 laps to go, Harvick’s pit crew got him out first and he was set to lead the field to the restart with Johnson eighth and Hamlin ninth, almost the exact scenario needed for Harvick to win the title. Then the crushing blow hit the #29 team square in the face, Harvick had sped down pit road. While it may not have mattered in the end, the penalty destroyed most of Harvick’s chance at the championship, as he had to spend the rest of the race making up ground he lost on the penalty.

Johnson is now a five-time champion, and that is simply amazing. Sure, people like to hate him and the #48 team for being great; that’s fine, at least they care. But, don’t bash NASCAR because Johnson continues to win. If Hamlin or Harvick would’ve won Sunday, those same people would be thrilled and say everything in NASCAR is great. Instead, there will be those who say the racing is not exciting anymore. That is simply untrue.

This season was filled with everything a motorsports fan could want. Nearly every change NASCAR made during the offseason turned out to be a positive this season. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn around and make changes this offseason just for the sake of making changes. There have been plenty of times in the past decade NASCAR has gotten in its own way. Don’t do it again this year. Most of the races were fun to watch, even at some tracks that aren’t known for exciting racing, the leader rarely jumped out to a huge lead right after a restart, there were less debris cautions and the championship came down to a fantastic three-way battle. What’s to change?

Now we’ve come to that time of the year again, where the cars roll back under the cover of a garage for the winter and the NASCAR gear goes back into the closet until those beautiful February days roll around at Daytona. Is it too early to get excited about Speedweeks? Only 89 days until the 500.

Thank you to all the Monday Morning Crew Chief readers this season. It has been a pleasure to discuss my favorite subject each week. Look for the final rating Dec. 7, the Tuesday after the awards ceremony where the season will be rated and have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rating the Kobalt Tools 500: 4 Stars ****

Just when it looked like we might have a good idea of who would bring home the 2010 Sprint Cup Series title, Denny Hamlin pitted from his second-place position while Jimmie Johnson held on to finish fifth. Now, the champoinship battle is tighter than ever. The second-to-last race of the year gets a 4 Star Rating.

Overall, much of the race was pretty typical Phoenix-style racing. Similar to New Hampshire, it is really hard to pass, and therefore the leader can stay out front forever. However, and I think the spoiler has helped this issue in the majority of races this season, the leader never immediately jumped out to a two-second lead. The car in second was able to hang with the leader for long stretches throughout the race. Mark that down as a change that worked.

As the race headed into its final 100 laps, it looked like Hamlin would finish off a dominating performance and take a Johnson-type lead with him into Homestead next week.. Instead, the caution with 79 laps to go set the stage for what turned into a stomach-churning, drama-filled finish. This had to be one of the “game seven” moments NASCAR had asked for when it debated changing the Chase format. Harvick’s missing lugnut could have ended his chances, Johnson could have run out of fuel and Hamlin likely would have run out of fuel if he hadn’t pitted. Not only was the race on the line that last run, but the season was on the line.

Fuel-mileage races always bring with them an added amount of drama, but the addition of a championship battle made it all the more tense. This race actually had the feel of what most of the fall Richmond races are like, ironically, except for this season. I said at the end of the regular season I would take a good championship battle instead of a close battle for 12th at Richmond, and that is what we have.

People have talked a lot about possible changes to the Chase, and many ideas centered around an elimination-style format. But, that type of format would have actually taken some of the drama out of the finish to this season. Right now Hamlin and Johnson will go toe-to-toe next week and whoever finishes higher will likely win the title, but the fact that Harvick is still well within striking distance brings in an added element of excitement. If Hamlin and Johnson both falter, the #29 car will do burnouts after the race.

So, now that we have the closest championship battle in the Chase’s short history, let’s dream a little bit. Johnson is only 15 points behind Hamlin. Now, depending on who has what as far as bonus points are concerned, 15 points could be the difference between first and second. Carl Edwards got 20 more points than second-place finisher Ryan Newman, who didn’t lead a lap. Think about this, Hamlin and Johnson drive their way to the front throughout the race and end up first and second on the final run. They then give it everything they have and end up in a battle simlar to the one Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven had at Darlington in 2003, and the race comes down to a photo finish for the race and the championship. That would be thrilling.

Before we move on, congratulations to Edwards and the #99 team. It’s been a long time coming, but the Ford camp has picked up its game during the second half of this season and might well have somebody in the championship hunt at this point next season.

So here it is, the race we’ve all been waiting for. This year’s Chase will go down as one of the greatest ever, and the stage is set for the race at Homestead to be one that NASCAR fans for years to come will look back on and say, “Wow. What can we do to make the racing more like it was in 2010?”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rating the AAA Texas 500: 5 Stars *****

A terrific race at Talladega is followed up with possibly an even more exciting race at Texas. The final 500-mile race of the season included a record amount of lead changes, a new championship leader and there was a fight. Texas gets a very well-deserved 5 Star Rating.

What more can this sport offer right now? We have an incredibly close championship battle between Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, 5 Star excitement in back-to-back races and the emotion is back. Football is great, but right now every week is hold-your-breath excitement at the race track.

As he said earlier in the season, all Hamlin does is win. He brought home trophy #8 and now leads the points standings by 33 points with two races to go. For the first time since 2005, somebody other than Johnson leads as the series heads to its penultimate race.

Along with the Chase excitement, plenty of action took place on the track, not the least of which was the backstretch throwdown between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. After an altercation coming out of turn 4 before the caution flew, Gordon drove up alongside Burton to express his displeasure (he wasn’t the only one Sunday who exercised his freedom of expression) for what had happened. Burton then turned Gordon straight into the wall and both cars came to a rest on the backstretch. What happened next was a scene straight out of a movie.

Gordon walked down the backstretch to meet Burton where the two dropped the gloves and had at it. There have been several feuds between drivers this season, but this one takes the cake. There have even been drivers get out of their cars on the track and yell and push each other, but this fight brought back images to the finish of the 1979 Daytona 500 between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers.

The other driver who had issues expressing his displeasure Sunday was Kyle Busch. First, he gets spun out and, while trying to stay on the lead lap, speeds on pit road. Then as he sits in the pits for his penalty, not-so-subtly tells the NASCAR official he or she is #1. That cost him two more laps in the pits and took him completely out of contention.

Finally, the other unusual occurrence during the race happened when Chad Knaus replaced his own pit crew with the #24 team after Gordon wrecked. Now, this is a team that has won the past four season championships, and their crew chief decided to replace them in one of the most important races of the season. It’s incredible. Granted, the #48 crew struggled early in the race and the #24 group was flawless on the final three stops. Still, it added another dramatic element to the race and now the rest of the season, as the #24 guys will pit the #48 car the rest of the season.

So now the stage moves out west where the wild show goes to a one-mile track that acts like a short track. There’s nothing better to follow up a highly emotional race such as what took place at Texas. If people aren’t tuning in now, it’s not NASCAR’s fault. This sport is on top of its game right now.

For everybody who loves this sport, congratulations. These are the moments that make us remember why this sport is so great. The competition is as tight as can be, and the tension will only climb now that Johnson is behind. These next two weeks should be fascinating. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rating the Amp Energy Juice 500: 5 Stars *****

As expected, Talladega brought with it plenty of drama Sunday, including as close to a traditional photo-finish as possible in this technology age. It didn’t take a full week for NASCAR to decide the winner, as it did at the first Daytona 500, but the suspense lasted well after the checkered flag flew. The final restrictor-plate race of the season was worthy of a 5 Star Rating.

The constant shuffle of drivers to the front was certainly intriguing, and something that only happens in two races each year -- both of the Talladega races. Heck, Joe Nemecheck charged from his fourth-place starting position and led the the first lap.

What’s better than a race with more than 85 lead changes in one season? Two races with more than 85 lead changes. The 87 lead changes in Sunday’s race fell one short of matching the series record for lead changes in one race that was set the last time NASCAR visited its largest track. During the 388 laps run at Talladega this season, there were 175 lead changes. That is simply remarkable.

This race really had something for everyone, well maybe except for the fans of the 17 drivers who didn’t lead a lap, but hey, they probably got close at some point during the day. There were huge packs, long runs with green-flag pit stops, spectacular wrecks and a flurry of activity throughout the field for most of the race. If the finish line had been in turn one, this race may have ended similar to the 2007 Daytona 500 where Kevin Harvick edged out Mark Martin for the win. Instead, it finished similar to the 2008 July race at Daytona where video replay had to confirm the winner.

Many people expected this race to offer up the 2010 Sprint Cup Series Champion. Instead, the Chase among Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick just got tighter. However, none of the three drivers had an easy, normal day. Johnson sustained damage in one of the early wrecks, Hamlin fell a lap down after he tried the “stay at the back and hope the big one happens” strategy and Harvick smashed into Marcos Ambrose as he slid down across his nose in turn three.

Now, Johnson leads Hamlin by 14 points and Harvick closed to within 38 points of the lead with three races left. This is as close to a straight-up, head-to-head-to-head battle as NASCAR is ever going to see. People have begged for a close Chase in the past several years. Well, folks, here it is. Enjoy it or go home, but don’t complain that the racing is boring and the Chase has sucked the life out of the sport. It’s fair to wish for the old points format, but enjoy the excitement when it’s here.

So, next week the series heads west to Texas. It’s anybody’s race now, and Texas Motor Speedway has produced a variety of winners throughout its history. Plus, it’s another 500-mile race. Those last 100 miles usually separate the best from the rest, so expect Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick to be near the front as the laps wind down. Have a great week.