It all started 20 months ago, when Rick Hendrick made sweeping changes throughout an organization he thought had become complacent in the wake of Jimmie Johnson's fifth consecutive Cup Series championship. Drivers, crew chiefs and crewmen on three of Hendrick's four racing programs were reshuffled in an attempt to bolster an operation that wasn't showing the depth at which the owner had become accustomed. In the process, he made the somewhat daring move of splitting up two teams that had become almost synonymous with one another, and matching his best and most underperforming outfits under the same roof.
The next week, cranes were at work, pairing a large 48 and a large 88 aside one another on one of the buildings on the sprawling Hendrick Motorsports complex. It was a move that raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows, given that the programs of Jeff Gordon and Johnson had been joined at the hip since the latter was founded, a union that helped the No. 48 get up to speed very quickly and allowed both to maintain a high level of performance. But now -- pairing the teams of Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Making roommates of a five-time champion and a driver who had finished 21st in points? It was easy to see why some viewed the arrangement as an anchor tethered to Johnson's right leg.
Fast forward to this past Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when Johnson claimed his fourth career victory on the Brickyard's oval to knot Gordon, Rick Mears, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt for most all time. And then there was Earnhardt, quietly enjoying the best finish he's ever recorded at a track that had never been particularly good to him, and assuming the lead in the Sprint Cup point standings at the same time. Earnhardt is on top of NASCAR's premier series now; Johnson is in position to be on top when title contenders are reseeded for the Chase opener in six weeks. Suddenly, it looks very much like the championship will go through that 48/88 building, and that Hendrick knew was he was doing all along.
|Jimmie vs. Junior|
|2010 stats (20 races)|
|Lead Lap Fin.||20||16|
"We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end, knowing one of us is going to get it for the company," Earnhardt said. "If I could line that up right now, I would. That is how I'd have it."
To be fair, that grand restructuring in November 2010 was less a move of teams and more a move of drivers, who inherited support systems that had been shifted intact. Earnhardt was the lone new addition to what previously had been Gordon's old crew, just rebranded in No. 88 colors. Even so, the previous setup had netted five consecutive championships for Johnson, and the inconsistencies throughout the rest of the Hendrick organization notwithstanding, it wasn't uncommon to hear questions about trifling with a system that clearly worked. Last season, when Johnson plummeted to a career-low sixth place in the final standings, did little to assuage that argument. Even if there was Earnhardt, back in the Chase and in seventh place, right there behind him.
But this year? There can be no quibbles. Sunday at Indianapolis was the kind of effort that Johnson has built a career on, a dominating performance that left the competition with no hope of catching him. It also was the kind of day that showed how much progress Earnhardt, who notched a career-best fourth at the Brickyard, has made since being paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. Within the 48/88 shop, things have changed dramatically from a season ago -- now both programs are race winners, and both are pulling information from one another, and both have improved as a result.
"Clearly, Junior's win was huge and put that stamp, that seal of approval on what they're doing in their minds," Johnson said. "Stevie and Junior have really brought a lot to the table. I have to say, from Pocono to now, the stuff that Junior has liked in the car and what he's felt has opened up doors for us to pursue, and a road for us to go down where we've made our stuff better. There's a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams, and the communication is as good as it's ever been. I'm happy to see Steve as confident as he is, and Junior both, because we can really lean on them and pull from them, and it's a two-way street. That's something that's new this year, and I'm proud of both of them for where they're at and where our whole team is."
That growth was evident not just in Earnhardt's finish at Indianapolis, but the confidence he carried into the weekend. Indy is a place where Earnhardt previously had scored only one single-digit result -- that a sixth place in 2006 -- and his average finish had been in the 20s. And yet: "I think I could come in here and probably have my best finish here in quite awhile," he said the day before the race. He did just that, despite the fact that he prefers tracks where drivers can be a bit more creative over the line-sensitive Brickyard. Still, he adjusted. Another top-five in the books, another brick in the foundation. And after Matt Kenseth's crash, a vault to the top of the point standings, where he hadn't been since October 2004.
He'll hold it longer this time -- his last points lead disappeared days later because of a penalty he incurred for cursing in a televised post-race interview. Now it's on to Pocono, where Johnson won twice before the recent resurfacing, and Earnhardt was a contender for the victory in June until he had to pit late for fuel. It's one more step down the road to these two Hendrick stable mates potentially becoming combatants for the championship, a scenario Johnson said won't compromise either one.
"If both cars are in the hunt, it doesn't impact what goes on with the 48 team," the five-time champion said. "I mean, the tools that Rick gives us, the way our shops are set up, if one, none, four [teams are in contention], it doesn't matter. And it's great. ... I've been in that position before with Jeff, and not in the same shop necessarily, but with the 5 car with Mark [Martin]. It's great. What it does, especially for our company, it far exceeds any type of competitive spirit that exists. And from a technical standpoint, we all go to the race track with the same equipment. No one gets favorites. There isn't any favorites. We all have the same equipment."
Besides, Hendrick has been through this more than a few times. Terry Labonte and Gordon in 1996, Johnson and Gordon in '07, Johnson, Martin and Gordon with an unprecedented sweep of the top-three positions in points in '09 -- intrasquad battles for NASCAR's biggest prize are something the car owner has long been accustomed to handling, as much a part of the Hendrick way as those white buttoned-down-collar shirts or the caps bearing a slanted H. They weren't disruptive before. Hendrick can't imagine such a thing would be again, even if it pitted the two tenants of his 48/88 shop, the sport's most-popular driver against the sport's greatest modern champion.
"I'm beyond that nervousness trying to get the teams together and say, look, what got us here is working together and sharing information," Hendrick said. "I think by having those two cars where they are in the points will give us a better shot. A lot of organizations, it tears them down when they have that kind of competition. I think it makes us stronger. But I think we all have bought in. We live by it and we die by it, and we've been there since 1994. So I think that gives us a better opportunity to win the championship."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.