Hendrick makes rebuilding Junior's team a priority

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The phone conversation between NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Alan Gustafson was short and to the point.

"'Hey man,'" Gustafson said Hendrick told him, "'the 88 has got to run good, capiche?'"

Sure thing, boss.

Hendrick Motorsports ended last season with a serious problem. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top three spots in the final standings, but superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a distant 25th.

Earnhardt went winless in his heavily sponsored No. 88 Chevrolet. He notched five top-10 finishes, had his crew chief - who is also his cousin - fired midway through the season, and suffered through the most confidence-rattling season of his 10-year Cup career.

It was clear that getting Earnhardt's team on pace with the other HMS drivers was the top priority. The task of making it happen primarily falls to Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew and Gustafson, who led Martin to five wins last season and a runner-up finish to Johnson in the standings.

The move required a total restructuring of shop practices, and the shifting of Gustafson's lead race engineer and a key mechanic over to McGrew's team.

"This is something that's near and dear to Mr. Hendrick's heart, and these two cars have to perform. It's his responsibility, and it's my responsibility," Gustafson said, motioning to McGrew. "If that 88 car doesn't succeed this year, then the 5 is not going to succeed, either."

Because the layout at Hendrick's sprawling motorsports campus differs from many other organizations, his race teams are not all housed in the same shop. Johnson and Gordon are in one building, and the two teams established a system of efficiency and sharing from the very first day.

Things were never as smooth, though, after Hendrick merged his other two teams into a second building. So when the wheels nearly fell off last season, Hendrick knew he had to demand that the 5/88 shop fall into place once and for all.

Neither team needed convincing.

"I have never in my career, in business or racing, challenged two guys and had them jump like Lance and Alan have done," Hendrick said. "I want to have one team with two cars, and Alan was in agreement and ready to do it two races before the end of last year. I can not tell you how proud I am of that, and for Lance for not wanting to build his own deal, and instead saying 'I'm not going to do anything if Alan doesn't sign off.'"

The two crew chiefs are approaching this season as if they were one team, using plans and procedures as if everything and everyone were interchangeable. Both drivers are on board, which helps in executing the new structure.

"Our communication will be whatever level Junior wants it to be," Martin said. "Our goal is to elevate the performance of two cars, and it will not fail. I am old, I have been doing this a long time and I know what I know: It will not fail. If it was doomed to fail, it would have been met with some resistance and we would have pleaded our case.

"But it will work, and I guarantee you it will work."

Earnhardt has no choice but to buy into the new plans. There is nowhere but up for him to go, and he is putting faith in McGrew that his crew chief will have it turned around.

"We cannot go back to the track and perform like we did last year," he said. "I was embarrassed, the team was embarrassed and none of us want to go through that again. I think that willpower alone and our determination will not let that happen again."