It's share and share alike in the 24-48 shop at Hendrick Motorsports
What did Rick Hendrick create when he put Jimmie Johnson with Jeff Gordon under the same roof at HMS? Only the most dominating Cup team on the planet, writes David Newton.
Updated: November 14, 2007, 6:26 PM ETBy David Newton | ESPN.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- Art Simmons donned a red and black Dupont shirt as he went through the final checklist on Jeff Gordon's car. He still had it on when he helped push the car onto pit road for the start of Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.The 28-year-old Missouri native then slipped back into the garage like Superman would into a telephone booth and emerged with a black and blue Lowe's shirt. He headed straight for Jimmie Johnson's pit stall, where he spent the rest of the day as the front tire changer for the car that would win its fourth straight race."Everybody is like that in the shop," Simmons said. "We're two different teams, but we're one. It's a pretty amazing deal."This two-equals-one-under-the-same-roof philosophy that owner Rick Hendrick implemented in 2002 never has been tested more than in the past nine weeks as Johnson and Gordon have battled for the title.They have been 1-2 in the standings since the third race of the Chase. Gordon led five weeks. Johnson took the lead two races ago and methodically stretched it to 86 points heading into Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Never has one driver shown animosity or expressed jealousy. Never has one felt the other was getting better equipment.It's the same way at the Hendrick Motorsports compound in Concord, N.C. Those who work in the 24-48 shop remain dedicated to making sure both cars are prepared equally. If they have a favorite, they don't show it."People say we're racing the 24 team," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "The thing they don't understand, we're not racing the 24 team because the 24 team is the 48 team."It's all the same people. We all work together."One doesn't have to look further than the main lobby of the shop to see how Hendrick wanted things.
What we've got going now is phenomenal. We know that one of us is going to win a championship.
-- Chad Knaus
Mechanics, engineers and fabricators scurry around the big building on top of the hill at HMS. Most don't even know which car they are working on until the bright colors fans see on race day cover the factory gray. It's no different in the engine shop, where everything is prepared equally. The process of keeping everything equal goes all the way to the photographs on the wall. Not once are there consecutive pictures of one car or driver. On a table inside the engineering room is a picture of the two cars racing side by side with the caption, "Unity and Dedication."The sharing goes right down to the bonuses. In fact, if any of Hendrick's four cars wins, everybody shares in the wealth. "A lot of times, it's those little things that start setting the dividing lines," said Robbie Loomis, who was Gordon's crew chief until late in the 2005 season. "We had a party [in '05], and one of the sponsors wanted to just have it for the 24 team. "We said, 'We can't have a party that way. It's got to be the 24 and the 48 guys.'"Other organizations have two and three cars under the same roof. But typically, all the cars for one team are lined down one wall, with the other cars on the opposite wall.At HMS, cars being prepared for Gordon and Johnson are intermingled like the different colors in a bag of M&Ms. "Most of the time we don't realize what car we're working on," Simmons said. "That's why it flows."Start at the top
The offices of Knaus and Letarte are back to back. If one wants the attention of the other, a simple tap on the wall will do.Loomis used to spend more time talking with Knaus through the wall than by phone or e-mail.The close proximity isn't coincidence. Hendrick knew that for his plan to work, the key would be developing a good relationship between the crew chiefs.Loomis and Knaus didn't hit it off immediately. Loomis already was established and set in his ways, coming off the 2001 championship when this merger began. Knaus was young and aggressive, wanting everything done his way to prove himself."It's like if you go from one girlfriend you've had for two years, and all of a sudden, you decide to go in a different direction," Loomis said. "It's going to take a while to learn your new girl."Knaus agreed."For them to understand there was a new team coming in and they had to work on both teams was difficult," he said. "We really, really had to push it. It was hard for me and the 48 team for a long time with some of those guys.
"But now, they don't care. They just want to win races."Ultimately, Knaus knew he had to fit in if he wanted to stay. He was so determined to make it work that he read articles on open-mindedness.Letarte, who had been on Gordon's team almost from the outset, already had a good relationship with Knaus when he replaced Loomis. He understood the best way for him to move forward was to move forward with the 48.Gordon can't believe how far the teams have come. "We've definitely pushed how we communicate," he said. "We communicate more today than we did back then."Needed change
John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather and business manager, has an office overlooking the 24-48 shop. He's had an up-close view of how this partnership has evolved. "One of the things about Rick, he doesn't waste anything," Bickford said. "If you've got talent, let's bring the talent together. We'll all rise up together. When we look back, we're all higher than where we were."The only time Bickford has seen the plan not work was in 2005, when Gordon missed the Chase."There was a high level of frustration of where the 24 was," he said. "The team members were frustrated that they didn't feel the right applications to Jeff's requests were being addressed. And it was frustration, rightfully so. They were outperforming us." That, Bickford said, quickly dissipated when Letarte came on board."Robbie's distraction with his mom caused him to be a little less focused," Bickford said of Loomis, whose mother was in and out of the hospital at the time. "Steve was a young guy being put with a veteran that knows how to win. If you're the young guy, what are you going to do? You're going to ask the veteran things."You're going to say, 'You and I together. Let's get it down.' When you've got a veteran and a veteran working together like Robbie and Jeff, you're almost working on opposite poles."Everybody wins
Rick Gutierrez and Jeff Cook leaned against a tool box behind Gordon's car at Phoenix. Gutierrez was wearing a black and blue Lowe's shirt, Cook a red and black Dupont shirt.Earlier in the week, they were just the opposite."Yeah, yesterday he was in a Lowe's uniform and I was in a Dupont," said Gutierrez, who works on brakes for Gordon's car during the week and as Johnson's gas man on Sundays. "We double dip."Gutierrez and Cook don't care who wins the title. They get to go to the banquet in New York City regardless."It's truly a one-car deal," Gutierrez said. "I've worked with a lot of other teams and it's not a one-car deal. It's because you have two good drivers that can win any time, so there's no hostility from one team to the other."Since they went under one roof, Johnson has 33 wins, more than any driver in NASCAR's premier series. Gordon is second with 23. "I'm sure some teams wonder how it works out so well," said Johnson's car chief, Ron Malec. "But we're willing to let the drivers show it on the track."And they have fun doing it."Earlier in the year, when we had a couple of wins each, we would go down to tear down each other's pit box," Gutierrez said. "Then, after four or five wins, we'd go, 'Ah, they're on their own.'"Simmons went so far as to playfully cheer for Gordon while working in Johnson's pit when Johnson and Gordon were running 1-2 at the spring race in Martinsville because he knew Gordon had the better car."The good thing about it is I've been to Victory Lane 16 times this season," he said.On Sunday night, he'll celebrate a championship."We've had to work hard to make this work," Hendrick said. "But I tell them all the time, we'll never get torn down from the outside. It'll come from the inside. If we just keep doing what we're doing, we'll be OK."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.