HMS shuffles lineup for 3 racing teams

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hendrick Motorsports made sweeping changes to its organization Tuesday, shuffling the lineup for every team except five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

A crew chief change for slumping Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not unexpected, but nobody predicted the stunning swap team owner Rick Hendrick ordered just two days after celebrating the organization’s record 10th Cup championship.

Earnhardt, who has just one win through three seasons with HMS, now will be paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. He will move into the building Letarte shares with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon will move out of that shop to work with crew chief Alan Gustafson. That team will be partnered with crew chief Lance McGrew and Mark Martin.

The previous pairings had Gordon with Letarte, Gustafson with Martin and McGrew with Earnhardt. Nobody believed McGrew would make it through the offseason with Earnhardt, who has struggled since joining HMS in 2008. Hendrick has stopped at nothing to turn around Earnhardt’s performance, but insisted the last several months he would wait until after the season to make any personnel changes.

When Hendrick finally did, just two days after Johnson and Knaus won their record fifth consecutive title, the changes were huge.

“This will improve us as an organization, across the board,” Hendrick said in a statement. “We had a championship season, but we weren’t where we wanted and needed to be with all four teams. We’ve made the right adjustments, and I’m excited to go racing with this lineup.”

Hendrick scheduled a teleconference today to discuss the changes in detail.

Johnson won six races this season, and withstood his toughest challenge to date in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He trailed Denny Hamlin heading into Sunday’s season finale, and became only the third driver since 1975 to rally in the final race to win the championship.

But Hendrick’s other three drivers went winless, and only Gordon made the Chase, finishing ninth in the final standings.

The slump comes a year after Johnson, Martin and Gordon swept the top three spots in the final series standings.

Martin, who finished second in the standings last year and won five races, finished the season ranked 13th.

Earnhardt, who has not won since the 15th race of the 2008 season, was 21st in the standings. He’s got just three victories since 2005, but only three of those seasons were with Hendrick. His inconsistency has led Hendrick to make several changes to his race team, including the firing midway through 2009 of crew chief Tony Eury Jr.

McGrew was assigned to Earnhardt after Eury’s firing on an interim basis, and it was made permanent at the end of last season. But the Earnhardt-McGrew pairing never took off the way Hendrick hoped, even after he paired that team tightly with Gustafson and Martin last winter.

The marriage between the two teams also hurt Martin and Gustafson, who went from championship contenders to missing the Chase outright this season.

Gordon, meanwhile, was strong at the start of the year but faded over the summer and was a long shot to win the title despite making the Chase. He completed his second winless season in the last three years, all with Letarte.

The duo hasn’t been the same since 2007, when they frantically chased Johnson for the title. Despite six wins and a NASCAR-record 30 top-10 finishes in 36 races, Gordon fell short in the championship race and hasn’t challenged since.

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