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Pedley: Hendrick Mojo Strikes Again

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, June 1 2009
Lance McGrew and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Lance McGrew and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Last week was a tester for Hendrick Motorsports. It was a week during which NASCAR’s premier team would be assaulted from all imaginable sides. It was a week during which HMS would be scrubbed, sudsed and pounded on the rocks by anybody and everybody who has an opinion and you know what they say about the proliferation of opinions.

But when Hendrick Motorsports emerged from the wringer of public and media scrutiny, when it packed up its caravan of haulers and left Dover International Speedway late Sunday, it did so with its mojo in tact.

Not only does the Hendrick operation maintain it reputation as The Operation today, it has added another layer of bullet-resistant body armor.

Sunday evening, cornered by some of those who had staged the assault, team-owner Rick Hendrick responded it all by simply saying, “I’m really pleased.”

Very little had been simple when it came to HMS’s problem at hand, however.

That focal point of tester week was the No. 88 car. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. car.

In its second season with Hendrick, the car/driver/crew chief combination was pleasing absolutely nobody.

It had one points-paying victory – that last year at Michigan.

Earnhardt admitted in January that he was scared in 2008. Scared of letting people down.

“Last year there were a lot of questions and uncertainties and insecurities about how we were going to do,” Earnhardt said during the annual media tour in North Carolina. “I was scared to fail trying to win.”

By that January media tour, Earnhardt’s crew chief/cousin, Tony Eury Jr., was furrowed-brow deep in criticism of the job he was doing. He, too, said he felt scared.

“We go there each week and try to do the best we can, but there’s big expectations that people think we can do, and there are only so many people who can do it on any given weekend,” Eury said.

This year, the hope was that the newness of the situation would be worn away, the fear would be conquered, the comfort factor of all involved would be at a level consistent with success and that the pressure of adding the sport’s most popular driver to the sport’s best team would be gone and that it would all make for one big, 36-week-long party.

Didn’t happen.

Earnhardt rolled out of Concord, N.C. after the Coca-Cola 600 a week ago winless, in 19th place in points, all but out of contention for a Chase berth and bereft of answers.

But Rick Hendrick, Mr. H as he is lovingly called by those who work for him, was not out of answers or options.

He made a series of changes in his organization that were quite large when their ripples are followed out to their furthest points.

Eury Jr. was asked to climb down from the No. 88 pit box. That was step one. Originally, general manager Brian Whitesell was to take his place for the Dover race and then turn it over to Lance McGrew, who would serve as crew chief on an interim basis.

Eury would go over to the HMS development team and work with Brad Keselowski, a job which McGrew had been performing.

But Keselowski failed to make the Cup race and Saturday night the decision was made to bring McGrew over to the 88 pit box for the Dover race the next day.

As part of his R ad D duties, Eury this week, will spend some time with Jimmie Johnson’s team. He is going with the No. 48 team on Tuesday and Wednesday to test the road course at Kershaw. No. 48-car crew chief Chad Knaus is not attending, so Eury will be overseeing the test with Johnson.

Hendrick explained the latter move late Sunday.

“That means Chad’s got total confidence in him and that maybe Tony will come up with something that he hadn’t thought about and try some things different,” Hendrick said. “I’ve seen Tony really engage with simulation and with no testing, you’ve got to depend on that. These crew chiefs have to depend on somebody that has been there and done that. His job now is to help us win a championship. And that’s what’s he’s committed to doing.”

It would be easy to describe Hendrick’s moves as simply a last-gasp, throw-something-against-the-wall-to-test-its-tackiness Hail Mary. Hendrick himself made it sound that way during a teleconference last week.

But this is Hendrick Motorsports, a team that seems to turn tragedies into lessons, setbacks into fresh starts, their problems into other people’s problems on the race track.

Earnhardt ran as well about as he has all season at Dover. His 12th-place finish was not nearly indicative of his performance.

Hence Hendrick’s statement about being pleased.

A bit later, the man with the plan dissected the whole 88-car affair.

“To sit down and tell a crew chief and a driver, they’ve done it one way for eight years or whatever it’s been, it’s hard to do,” Hendrick said. “But I think today, working through the weekend, I think it challenged Junior (Earnhardt) and he did a super job. I am extremely proud of the way he worked on the radio with Lance and the communication sounded to me like they’ve been together for years. It’s just a method that our engineers and our crew chiefs use and Lance has been in the middle of that.

“And I think Tony was really kind of letting Junior make the decisions and he would give some input, but then they would lockup. All I can tell you is that I’m pleased with what happened today. Everybody made a tremendous effort to say let’s do this as a group. They burned a lot of midnight oil since Wednesday and I think Junior and Lance spent an hour together last night and Brian Whitesell and the engineers and Rex (Stump).

“I feel like it’s been three weeks since Wednesday night with all the conversations I’ve had with so many different people. But everybody had a positive attitude once the dust settled and said, okay, we’ve got to regroup. This is a new deal and let’s go to work. I was really happy this morning talking to Tony Eury Jr. about what he’s doing next week. So that’s it.”

That’s it, alright. It may have been a completed Hail Mary or it may result in nothing in the long run.

But today, right now, that Hendrick mojo is still looking pretty dang powerful.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, June 1 2009
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