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Hendrick Motorsports making gains after crew chief swap

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Avondale, AZ (Sports Network) - The crew chief shuffle at Hendrick Motorsports appears to be paying off early in the season.

With the guidance of new crew chief Alan Gustafson, Jeff Gordon snapped a 66- race winless streak in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and new pit boss Steve Letarte stormed out of the gate at the start of the season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500.

Mark Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew aren't too shabby right now, as Martin's sits sixth in points.

Just days after the 2010 season-finale at Homestead, FL, team owner Rick Hendrick made significant crew chief changes for three of his four teams in the Sprint Cup Series.

Gustafson moved from Martin's No.5 team and replaced Letarte as crew chief for Gordon's No.24 car. Letarte paired with Earnhardt Jr. at the No.88, while McGrew ended his tenure with Earnhardt Jr. and took over the role for Martin's team.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remain paired after they won their record-extending fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship last year.

"This organization is really one team of four cars," Hendrick said. "People say that sometimes and don't really mean it, but these guys work shoulder to shoulder. When you look at the [chemistry] of all of them, Dale needed Steve, because he's a real rah-rah guy that stays with him all during the race. I looked at Lance as a technician, and that's what Mark is, and they have won together.

"Jeff's always had tremendous respect for Alan, and he's always talked about having Alan. And then we just left the 48 [Johnson] and Chad alone."

All four Hendrick drivers did not practice and qualify well at Phoenix, but each one sure did turn in a heck of a performance in the race.

Alan Gustafson has now won with three different drivers at Hendrick.
Gordon drove like he did during his championship days. It showed when he chased down Kyle Busch and then passed Busch for the lead with less than 10 laps to go. "Wonder Boy" returned, and he was happy to be back in victory lane.

"This is kind of a win/win for all of us," Gordon said. "I just think that it's all about having the right set up with the right car at the right time, and [Sunday] was that."

Despite making the championship Chase, Gordon blew several winning opportunities last year. He dominated in the spring races at Phoenix and Texas, but mishaps late in those events prevented him from driving into victory lane. Gordon also had a chance to win at Martinsville last March, but an incident with Matt Kenseth with two laps to go cost him the victory there.

Gustafson has now won with three different drivers at Hendrick. He guided Busch to four victories when Busch drove for Hendrick from 2005-07. Martin won five races with Gustafson during Martin's first year with the racing organization in 2009.

"I think you're pretty lucky if you've won with Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin," Gustafson said. "If I would have won with somebody who has never won, I think that's probably a bigger accomplishment. I thank Mr. Hendrick for putting me in position to work with drivers of that caliber."

Martin suffered slight damage to his car during an early multi-car crash at Phoenix, but he bounced back with help from his pit crew to finish 13th. Martin started the season with a 10th-place run at Daytona.

Earnhardt Jr. had his share of adversities at Phoenix. He started 35th and then narrowly avoided the big 14-car wreck on lap 67 before suffering a loose wheel, which put him one lap down late in the race. But Earnhardt Jr. recovered nicely by finishing 10th.

"Steve did a good job, and the guys did a good job in the pits," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Everybody helped prepare the car all weekend. We did pretty good, but we just have to keep working hard and thinking like we are and just try to do better."

Things are looking good for HMS. Now, it's a question if that will be the same came later in the season.

"It's early, but by summer, you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake," Hendrick said. "Right now, the chemistry looks really good in the teams, and we are competitive every week. We were competitive in Daytona, and we were competitive [in Phoenix], even though we did not qualify that great."

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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