Following the announcement earlier this week that the No. 24 and No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports pit crews would trade places for the final two races of the year, their respective crew chiefs, Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte, met with the media to explain the reasoning behind the move.
Jeff Gordon's No. 24 crew replaced the No. 48 crew of driver Jimmie Johnson for the final three pits stops in this past Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and the seven-member, over-the wall crew that pitted Gordon's car for the entire season until mid-race Sunday will now be pitting Johnson's car for the final two races of the season, beginning this Sunday in Phoenix. Johnson's regular crew will pit Gordon's car.
Knaus, made the call for the initial switch after Gordon had been crashed out of the Texas race after being controversially booted by Jeff Burton on lap 192, citing poor performance in earlier stops by the 48 pit crew. He admitted that the mid-race change was unusual, but insisted it was the right call.
"Probably not. It was a unique situation," he said when asked if he would have called for the switch if Gordon had still been in the race. They're crashed out. They're sitting there and our guys are struggling. To not do that, I think would have been a mistake.
"I don't think people understand that it's not an easy decision to do that kind of thing. It's something where emotions are involved, and we understand that. We love our guys. We eat, sleep, drink with them. We win with them; we lose with them. We do whatever it is with them. But ultimately, it's bigger than seven guys. We're 520 people strong on this team, and we're 80-plus people strong in this building. So it's more about the team than about what people think."
Knaus dismissed the suggestion of title rival Denny Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, that the switch was an act of "desperation" by Johnson's team. Texas winner Hamlin heads into the final two races of the season leading the Chase for the Sprint Cup by 33 points over Johnson.
"I don't think it's an act of desperation by any stretch of the imagination," Knaus said. "It's an act of what we've got to do to try to win the race," Knaus said. "We've got a setup in Phoenix that we like a lot. We've got a car that we run in Phoenix that we like a lot. We're not going to go and run that exact setup if it's not fast. I hate to say it as bluntly as this is, but it's like changing a spring or changing a shock or something like that. You have to put the best components together to try to win a championship."
Letarte said he is comfortable with the decision to swap crews. He said he has assured Gordon that he still will have a legitimate chance to win each of the last two races with his new pit crew.
"We all race for [team owner] Mr. [Rick] Hendrick. We all want to win for him," Letarte said. "While I would love to see the 24 win – and that's our goal for the next two races – we don't have a chance to win the championship. So we're going to put whatever effort we can into whichever team still has a shot to win it.
"I think my personal response to that is that I feel I've had a part in the last four championships the 48 has won. So I guess we do win them as a company."
Asked about Mike Ford's post-race comments in Texas "that apparently at Hendrick it is more important to win for the company rather than for the individual race team," Letarte replied, "Well, I didn't hear his comments specifically, but I can tell you from our perspective that if there is a difference between winning for a team and winning for a company, then he obviously doesn't work for Hendrick. That's the way we've been built; that's the way it's been designed. It's been that way forever – ever since I've been here, at least."
Marshall Carlson, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, noted that the four Hendrick teams are structured so as to provide interchangeable personnel within the organization.
"Really, the way our system works is that this is a crew chief-led organization. We say that a lot – but this is actually a living example of that," Carlson said. "The way our system is built, with pit crews in particular during a race, any one of our crew chiefs can call for a backup from any of the other teams.
"So, at the track, we have the seven members who go over the wall, and each team also has two backup athletes at the event. Any team can pull any of those backups to their team if they have a need. So what happened on Sunday in Texas was an example of that. Chad's team conferred, and it happened immediately. They didn't need to consult anyone else. They knew where their authority was; they knew they had that capability. They made the decision and went on."