Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Motor Mouth: 'Four Cars, One Team' mentality powers Hendrick at Talladega

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, with teammates Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
right behind, bring the field to green at the Aaron's 499 at Talladega on Sunday.
Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
At Hendrick Motorsports, the organization’s motto is “four cars, one team.”

We’ve seen this philosophy in action every year during the Chase, as crew members from one team have scurried over to the garage to help repair the car of another. During last summer’s Coke Zero 400, members of the No. 48 team were the first to reach Mark Martin and pull him out of his flaming racecar.

The most dramatic example of the team dynamic was the No. 24/No. 48 pit crew swap during last year’s Chase, which occurred during the Texas race and stayed in effect through Homestead. It was a decision that helped secure a fifth championship for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team.

This weekend at Talladega, where the two-car tandem has become the norm, Hendrick’s model of teamwork was the key to its success.

Talladega allowed the four Hendrick teams to make up for a missed opportunity in the Daytona 500. They had little time to work together when Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were taken out early in a multi-vehicle wreck. Mark Martin had damage and was two laps down before recovering to finish 10th. For the majority of the Daytona 500, pole sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the sole car representing Hendrick upfront until a late wreck ended his shot at victory.

After Rick Hendrick instituted crew chief changes among three of the four teams during the offseason, it was the new garagemates – Johnson and Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon and Martin – who partnered on the track at Talladega. With Gordon on the pole, all four cars qualified in the top 4 starting spots, only the third time in history all four drivers on a race team had accomplished the feat.

When the green flag dropped at the Aaron’s 499, a new dynamic duo emerged: Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson. The two stayed together all day, even pitting together, becoming the epitome of the two-car tandem. With Earnhardt Jr.’s spotter TJ Majors guiding them, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson acted as one on the track. They took turns leading the race and pushing one another.

Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. pit together.
Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR
In their scanner communications, Johnson sought the advice of Earnhardt Jr., the “pied piper” of restrictor-plate tracks. It was Dale Jr.’s idea to lay back in the middle of the race, which paid off as they were able to avoid two crashes toward the front of the field.  

And it was Earnhardt Jr. who made what would be the call of the race: that he should push Johnson because the duo went faster with the No. 48 upfront. This coming from a driver who had not seen victory lane for 100 races.

The results at Daytona and Saturday’s Nationwide race at Talladega showed that the lead car in the two-car draft would be the one to win. So with his decision, Earnhardt Jr. had to know his winless streak would likely continue. But he wasn’t thinking of himself – he was thinking of his team, of Hendrick Motorsports as a whole.

“He was committed, as was I, and it showed today. We were -- neither one of us were selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car leading was faster,” Johnson said. “Chad and Stevie confirmed that our lap times were faster with the 48 in front of the 88 and we made a swap going into turn one and just kind of stayed that way from there on out.”

The 48 and 88 were committed, and so were their teammates, the 24 and 5. With 10 laps to go, all four cars were in the hunt for the win. Gordon had the lead when the white flag waved, but as he and Martin were looking to race Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, they left the bottom open just enough for Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. to make their move. As it went four wide coming to the checkered, Earnhardt Jr. gave Johnson the push he needed.

In a thrilling finish, tying the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history - .002 of second – the five-time champion won his first race of the season. The victory ended Johnson's own winless streak - at 15 races, it was the second-longest of his career.

It was the ultimate example of teamwork, with Earnhardt Jr. being the first to tell Johnson he had won. After Johnson got the checkered flag, he drove over to Earnhardt Jr., who finished 4th, to give his teammate the flag. They had achieved victory together; they would share it, too.

In a sport where it’s every driver for himself, the two-car tandem style of racing now the norm at restrictor-plate tracks makes it necessary for drivers, especially teammates, to work together. Whereas as the Hendrick teams lost the chance to do so at Daytona, they were ready for Talladega. Under the organization’s “four cars, one team” motto, all four cars finished in the top 8, with the 48/88 leading the way to victory lane.

“We have been working a while to try to get to where we could get the drivers to really commit to one another and work together, and I think it was really nice to see the 5 and 24 work together the way they did today. I thought it was nice to see the 48 and 88 work together,” No. 48 team crew chief Chad Knaus said.

And like a good teammate, Knaus intends to repay the favor to Earnhardt Jr.

“We would have been pushing the 88 car if Dale had not come on the radio and said, ‘Hi, guys I don't think we are fast enough the way we are right now, we need the 48 in front.’ If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed that will be it, we will follow him across the line with sparks and fire ablazing.”


ENCOURAGEMENT FOR JUNIOR NATION

Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains winless after 101 races, Junior Nation has a lot to be excited about. After a strong start to the season, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team proved they could contend for the win at Martinsville and also this weekend at Talladega. With new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 12 in seven out of eight races this season.

Though it hasn’t been easy for Dale Jr. fans during his drought, they can look to Kevin Harvick for encouragement. Harvick broke a 115-race winless streak in 2010 and went on to win multiple races, rising to become a champion contender. Harvick found consistency early last season, similar to what Earnhardt Jr. is demonstrating this year.

Last summer, Earnhardt Jr. said he didn’t want to make the Chase unless he and his team could legitimately contend for the title. "If I'm going to make this Chase, I want to make it and feel like I've got a chance to contend and battle in the top five and be around in the last couple races with a shot still at winning the championship,” he said.

Sitting third in points after Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. has shown he can indeed contend and battle in the top 5 this year. With the way the No. 88 team has been running, they are headed in the direction of victory lane. The team will get its next chance in two weeks at Richmond, where Earnhardt Jr. boasts five Sprint Cup wins.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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