Which of the three new HMS driver/crew chief combinations will win first and will any of you win before the 48? You wish, right?!
The million-dollar question, huh?! I fully expect the 88 car to be competitive in Phoenix this weekend, as it was last weekend at Daytona. I don't think there's going to be a huge learning curve. More important than who will win first is that all four cars win this year. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made 2010 look like a great year for Hendrick Motorsports, but if you removed the 48, we had a pretty dismal season. We had one other car in the top 10 on points, and three teams with zero wins. That's not how this company was built, it's not how this company is run, and it's not what anyone in this company expects. While we'd all love to be the first driver/crew chief combination to win for Mr. Hendrick this year, the most important thing is to get all four combinations winning again.
The interesting thing about Daytona is that we had a new driver, a new nose on the car and a new track surface and I don't know if we can yet fully differentiate which was the biggest factor in our performance there. So as we go to Phoenix and Las Vegas, it will be very important to evaluate where we stack up versus the other Hendrick cars, because that's been a very consistent baseline for us over the past couple years: the 48 car has been the strongest, and it's no secret that the 88 has been the weakest. So our best measuring stick will be internally because the four teams within our company all have the same tools.
Given the realigning of personnel at Hendrick over the winter, how much of a say did you have? Did Mr. Hendrick just sit you down and say, “This is your job for 2011” or did he consult with you and Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew? Does he consult with the drivers, too? Were you Junior's pick?
All legitimate questions and I can reply only with the answers I have. Was I involved in every meeting from the start? No. Nor is that really my place. We have an executive group here at Hendrick Motorsports – two vice presidents, a president and then we have the owner, Mr. Hendrick, at the top. I'm sure they had conversations before I was involved, but I also know it wasn't a case of them sitting me down and saying, “This is your job!” Mr. Hendrick is an amazing man; I've learned that he's a leader who takes control but does it in such a manner that everyone has a vote. It doesn't feel like a dictatorship at all. So he asked my opinion, then laid out what he thought was a successful plan and wanted to know if I agreed or disagreed. I agreed with a lot of things he came up with, and we did it.
Funny thing is, on the outside it seemed huge, but on the inside it just felt like a change within a company brand. We aren't four race teams: we're Hendrick Motorsports, and I think Mr. Hendrick's idea to swap just the drivers but not the crew chief and personnel and buildings was an excellent one. I think it's going to be a huge gain for all three teams. I applaud Jeff, a man who, pre-Jimmie Johnson, carried the flag for Hendrick Motorsports. He has taken a huge step and I think he and Alan will work great together. Things like that prove that everyone has bought in to the HMS plan: if Jeff Gordon hadn't bought into it, this wouldn't work and if Dale or Mark Martin weren't on board, this wouldn't work. Everyone had opinions. I wasn't with Alan or Lance when Mr. Hendrick talked to them, but from where I stood, I think we've moved in the right direction.
Welcome to Junior Nation, buddy! Are you aware of the extra pressure on Little E's crew chiefs? Will it bother you that he gets the credit when he wins, and the team gets slammed if he sucks? Are you ready for the hardest job in racing?!
I know there'll be extra pressure, Kerry, but I've said this before: everyone wants to know if it's such a huge step from Jeff Gordon to Dale Jr. and I'm sure it's going to be. But nothing I experience in my work life will be as big as the step I took in 2005 when I walked into Loudon as Jeff Gordon's crew chief for the first time. I was a no-name, nobody car chief who worked hard and knew a lot about racecars but if you'd asked the 100 media members who were at Loudon before then what my name was, 10 of them might have known it. But when I walked out of the truck that Friday morning at Loudon in the fall, all 100 knew my name. And that, by far, is the biggest step and biggest change I've ever encountered in my life.
So am I ready for the pressure? Bring it on. There's no one out there who can put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I was raised by my dad at tracks on Saturday nights to know there's nothing more important in this business than performing and winning. He taught me long ago that the most important page in any sports section of the paper was the back page with the results and that everything else was just a good story. So that's what I want to do: get the results. Toughest job in motorsports? We'll see…but I'm excited by the challenge.