Commentary

Will Hendrick's gamble pay off?

Updated: November 23, 2010, 10:06 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Flash back to 2007, the day Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports, and recall the words of team owner Rick Hendrick.

"If he's winning, it's because of his talent," Hendrick said of Earnhardt at the time. "If he's not, it's because of my not giving him good stuff. That's the way fans will look at it."

Earnhardt hasn't been winning.

He hasn't come close.

So Hendrick is making another change, one bigger than anyone of us imagined after talking to the owner of Hendrick Motorsports before Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Did you just hear the earth tremor at HMS headquarters in Concord, N.C.? You should have.

Those who have been begging for Hendrick to pair Earnhardt with crew chief Chad Knaus and get four-time champion Jeff Gordon a new crew chief got their wish on Tuesday.

OK, so Hendrick didn't break up Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. He'd be crazy to after they won their fifth straight Sprint Cup championship on Sunday. But he did the next best thing, announcing he is moving NASCAR's most popular driver into the same building with Knaus and Johnson.

You heard right. It's no longer the 48-24 shop as it has been since Johnson's team was formed in 2002. It's now the 48-88 shop, with Gordon moving next door with Mark Martin and being paired with Alan Gustafson instead of Steve Letarte.

Letarte will work with Earnhardt and Lance McGrew moves from Earnhardt to Martin.

If the earth didn't move, everything else did.

If you want to know why HMS is the top organization in NASCAR, this is it. Despite a record 10th Cup title, Hendrick wasn't willing to rest on his laurels. He made what could be called the biggest driver-crew chief shakeups in the history of the sport before the champagne was dry on the clothes he wore during Johnson's celebration on Sunday.

Hendrick said the move was to make the entire organization stronger, but you can't help to think it had a lot to do with fulfilling his 2007 promise to make Earnhardt a championship driver.

"He made the decision to come with us based on our ability to give him what he needs to reach those goals," Hendrick said in June of 2007 when it was announced Earnhardt was coming to HMS. "So that's the competitive side of me that adds pressure, because I want to deliver what he's expecting.

"And because of the magnitude of his space and position in the sport, with his fan base and so forth, the feeling is that everyone is going to anticipate it."

Hendrick has said repeatedly that making Earnhardt a championship contender would be the biggest challenge of his career. He has said repeatedly over the past three seasons that he will do anything to help Earnhardt accomplish his goals.

Hendrick thought splitting Earnhardt and crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. and pairing him with McGrew last June was the solution. It didn't help, as Earnhardt went on to a career-worst 25th-place finish in points in 2009.

He thought restructuring the 88-5 shop and giving Earnhardt many of the key personnel that helped Martin finish second in points in 2009 was the solution. It didn't help, as Earnhardt finished 21st in points in 2010.

Short of pairing Earnhardt with Knaus, this was Hendrick's last option. If it doesn't work, as some of you have suggested in e-mail and on Twitter, then it's time for Hendrick and Earnhardt to split.

"It's pretty obvious we aren't very good and we need to do some things to get better," Earnhardt said last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's obvious that's where we are.

"The last couple of years have been hard. We've been bad. We ain't run good. I ain't run good. It's been real hard to deal with. ... I still feel some confidence in what I can do. I guess I'm just glad that's still there, you know?"

Many believed Hendrick would pair Earnhardt with Gustafson, but that would have been more shuffling inside the same shop that didn't work out this season. The only logical choice left was to put Earnhardt with Johnson and Knaus and hope that lucky horseshoe (see Kevin Harvick's comments earlier this year) they have buried where the sun don't shine rubs off.

It'll be an interesting dynamic. Letarte is more of a nurturer, judging from his radio conversations with Gordon. How he handles Earnhardt's apparent inability to convey what he needs in the car and short fuse when things don't go right will be something to monitor.

That Earnhardt will be working more closely with Knaus also creates an interesting dynamic. Knaus settles for nothing less than perfection. He'll demand more out of the 88 driver than has been demanded before, from physical fitness to what he eats and drinks.

Knaus basically told Johnson to be prepared to test during the offseason less than two hours after they'd won the title.

If Knaus doesn't like the way things are going with Earnhardt, there could be bloodshed, figuratively speaking.

The winner in all of this could be Gordon. He gets Gustafson, considered one of the bright, young stars in the business, a younger version of Ray Evernham, the crew chief who led him to three of his four titles.

He also gets to work closely with Martin, with whom he already has a great relationship.

The loser could be Martin, who had a chemistry with Gustafson he believed made him championship material. Although they struggled much of this season after an amazing 2009 run, they came on strong at the end.

Martin inherits a crew chief, in McGrew, who doesn't have the reputation or accomplishments of any of the other three at HMS.

But Martin has only one year left with HMS and this makes it easier to move in crew chief Kenny Francis with Kasey Kahne in 2012 when Kahne leaves Red Bull Racing for HMS.

But that's more than a year away. Hendrick will take care of that situation when the time comes. He has to be concerned with the present.

"This will improve us as an organization, across the board," Hendrick said in a statement. "We had a championship season [with Johnson], but we weren't where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams. We've made the right adjustments, and I'm excited to go racing with this lineup."

He may be excited, but he also has to be nervous.

He's running out of options.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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