By admin | December 10, 2008
By Richard Allen
Last week I wrote about the remarkable success of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus and compared the combination against other tandems in NASCAR history. I ended that column by teasing that it might be time to break this successful duo up.
I say that not because their relationship may be going stale and certainly not because there has been a drop off in their performance because neither of those things appear to be the case. I say it because there are other drivers within the Hendrick Motorsports team who appear to need a boost.
In particular, those two drivers are Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
When the casual fan or even the non NASCAR fan is asked to name a driver it is almost a sure bet that either the name Earnhardt or Gordon will be mentioned. However, the success of these two did not match their enormous notoriety and popularity in 2008.
It may be that Knaus is no more talented or knowledgeable than any other crew chief at HMS. It could simply be that he and Johnson have struck such a good personal relationship that the set ups are just right and the pit calls fall into place. Or, it could be that Knaus is just that good.
Considering the marketability of both Earnhardt and Gordon and the potential windfall to be gained by having either of these talented drivers succeed, it may be time to consider having Knaus move his wrenches to another side of the HMS garage.
Earnhardt recently picked up the hardware in New York for being named NASCAR’s most popular driver. He has won that award for the past six consecutive years.
Unfortunately for Junior, his success on the track has not matched his success at the souvenir stand. In his first season for the powerhouse Hendrick organization he managed only one victory, a fuel mileage gamble that paid off in Michigan.
As part of his move to HMS from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Junior brought his crew chief and cousin Tony Eury, Jr. with him. That pairing has produced little to brag about in recent years. At DEI the two Juniors went winless in 2007 and managed only one win in 2006.
Wins would go well with Earnhardt’s marketability. He has not been getting those wins on a regular basis. Chad Knaus has. One has to wonder how Junior could do with a three time champion crew chief calling the shots on his pit box. One also has to wonder how many hats and shirts could be sold if Junior were winning more races and seriously contending for a championship with two or three races remaining in the season.
For Gordon, the story of 2008 was even less successful than that of Earnhardt. He did not visit victory lane even once.
The fact that Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte struggled to find the handle on the Car of Tomorrow was obvious. The four time champion driver’s frustration showed more than once when he was openly critical of his crew both in interviews and during team radio communications.
Gordon has 81 career wins to go along with those four titles. To say the least, he is not used to winless seasons. This driver who has proven to be equally comfortable in front of a camera as he is in victory lane did not get to use his victory lane speech in 2008.
Gordon has hinted that he does not plan to do like so many other drivers and race well into his forties. He will turn 38 in 2009. One has to wonder if he would like the opportunity to be paired with a championship proven crew chief like Knaus to make a run at another title before he decides to take his final checkered flag.
Obviously, the risk of breaking up the most successful duo in racing today would be great. However, the potential reward of matching Chad Knaus with either Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Jeff Gordon could be off the charts. Has it ever been considered behind the office doors at Hendrick Motorsports?
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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