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Season Review/Preview: Hendrick Motorsports

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Review

There is at least one job that is recession-proof in this tough economy -- adding on to Rick Hendrick's trophy room.

2010 season stats
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 0 (36 starts)
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 8
Poles: 1
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 0 (36 starts)
Top 5s: 11
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 1
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 6 (36 starts)
Top 5s: 17
Top 10s: 23
Poles: 2
Mark Martin
Wins: 0 (36 starts)
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Poles: 1

Hendrick won his 10th Sprint Cup championship in 2010 thanks to Jimmie Johnson's come-from-behind run to take an unprecedented fifth consecutive title.

Although Johnson's overall performance on his way to winning championship No. 5 wasn't dominating, it may have been the most satisfying. Johnson entered the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points but came away with a 40-point advantage and a fifth straight season as NASCAR's best.

"I've always told you the first championship, the first win, that stuff has meant the most to me. This one, I think this takes the lead," Johnson said. "It's not that the other Chases weren't competitive. We were stronger in the previous two Chases, at least, but this one, I am just so proud."

After starting the season strong with wins in three of the first five races on the schedule, Johnson cooled off. But as the campaign progressed, he slowly returned to championship caliber, and as has been his reputation, excelled during the 10-race Chase.

Overall, Johnson scored six victories, including one during the Chase, along with 17 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes.

"There's no telling how long it's going to last and I think we're all shocked it's gone on this far," said Johnson, who became the first driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to overtake the point leader and win the championship in the final race of the season. "Being a realist, I don't know if it's going to last. I'm amazed that we've been able to do this for five years straight."

While Johnson celebrated another year of Hendrick excellence, the rest of the organization's stable didn't perform at anywhere near the same level.

After sweeping first through third in the 2009 championship standings, only two Hendrick drivers even qualified for the Chase last season with Jeff Gordon joining teammate Johnson in the title run.

But despite earning a berth in the playoff season, 2010 will be remembered as one of frustration and disappointment for Gordon.

Time and again Gordon was thwarted in his quest for victory lane with a variety of circumstances getting in the way. Tire strategy, late-race accidents and just plain bad luck kept Gordon winless for the second season of the last three.

After a runner-up finish at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. was a complete non-factor, finishing 21st in the final standings. (Getty Images)  
After a runner-up finish at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. was a complete non-factor, finishing 21st in the final standings. (Getty Images)  
He suffered through a particularly disappointing Chase with his frustrations seemingly coming to a head in a celebrated incident with Jeff Burton at Texas in November.

After contact with the Richard Childress Racing driver sent him hard into the Turn 2 wall, Gordon confronted Burton on the backstretch with the two exchanging shoves and blows before being pulled apart by NASCAR officials.

Gordon wound up ninth in the final standings and will enter the 2011 season winless since his victory at Texas in April of 2009.

Mark Martin was also shut out last season, and after his amazing 2009 effort, left Hendrick and his many fans feeling flat.

Martin was never able to show the kind of speed and consistency that led to his third-place finish in the standings the previous season and wound up missing the Chase.

"I don't think this season is what anyone expected, the media, the fans, anybody," Martin said. "With the way 2009 went, I believe we all thought we'd be fighting for a championship in 2010. But that's not the way it worked."

Nothing seemed to work for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who spent a miserable third full season as a member of the Hendrick organization.

After turning in a thrilling last-lap run to finish second in the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt was a complete non-factor the rest of the season and ended up 21st in the final standings.

Despite winning the Most Popular Driver Award for an eighth straight year, Earnhardt went winless for a second consecutive season.

Preview

Johnson's championship season wasn't enough to stop Hendrick from making sweeping changes to the organization for the coming year. Only two days removed from Johnson's triumph in Homestead, Hendrick announced radical changes to the remainder of his Sprint Cup stable that will see Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt all paired with new crew chiefs.

Earnhardt will now work with Steve Letarte, who called the shots for Gordon the last three years. Letarte replaces Lance McGrew and has the kind of personality Hendrick believes will turn things around for Earnhardt.

Team review/preview series
DateTeamDateTeam
Dec. 8JTG Daugherty Dec. 22Stewart-Haas
Dec. 10Red Bull Dec. 23Roush Fenway
Dec. 13Petty Dec. 27Childress
Dec. 15Waltrip Dec. 29Gibbs
Dec. 17Earnhardt-Ganassi Dec. 31Hendrick
Dec. 20Penske   
"When your confidence is shaken, you just get to a point you need something to give you that feeling that you can do it and you've got faith in the guy that you're working with," Hendrick said. "Sometimes it just gets to a point, the frustration sets in and it just can't work. It doesn't mean that Dale is not a good driver or Lance isn't a good crew chief, it just got to the point where it was not working and we needed to do something different."

McGrew will slide over to work with Martin, who comes into 2011 in the final year of his contract with Hendrick.

Martin's former chief, Alan Gustafson, takes over the pit-box duties for Gordon and the No. 24 team, a move the four-time series champion is behind.

"I'm certainly looking forward to working with Alan," Gordon said. "I've known Alan for a number of years and always respected him. In the back of my mind, I always thought it would be kind of cool to work with him.

"It's a great opportunity. If we're going to win more championships, especially with the 24 team, things like this, led by Rick, these types of decisions are what get you there."

The Johnson-Chad Knaus tandem remains intact and Hendrick said there was never a thought given to tampering with such a successful pairing.

"What these two and that whole team has accomplished over the years is nothing short of remarkable," said Hendrick. "Jimmie and Chad in my mind are one of the best driver-crew chief combinations in the history of this sport and we've been blessed to have them be so successful here with our team."

Outlook

There's no reason to think Johnson won't be in the mix right until the final laps of the season for the 2011 championship and a record sixth straight title. Johnson has established himself as one of the -- if not the -- greatest drivers in the sport's history and will add to that legacy again next season with a quest for his sixth crown.

But the rest of Hendrick's science experiment will be very interesting to watch as the new driver-crew chief chemistries develop.

Letarte is used to being in the spotlight in his years working with Gordon and will be able to handle the extraordinary pressure that comes with being Earnhardt's crew chief. It's do or die time for Junior in 2011, and another winless season will not be acceptable by Hendrick or Earnhardt's legion of fans.

Gordon should reap the benefits of working with the underrated Gustafson, who possesses one of the greatest engineering minds in the Sprint Cup garage.

Martin and McGrew will have the luxury of flying under the radar of their higher-profile teammates. Martin will want to prove to the world that even at age 52 he's not finished, which should be good for a win or two in 2011.

Hendrick remains the gold standard of Sprint Cup Series operations and although the competition level has gotten closer in the last two season look for the organization to remain a powerhouse in 2011.

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