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Time for another shake-up to Earnhardt’s team
So Hendrick technically has an opportunity to grab Francis now. It obviously wouldn’t be with Johnson or Gordon, who both have longtime relationships with crew chiefs who this season signed lengthy contract extensions to stay right where they are.
Instead, Hendrick should put Francis on the No. 5 car immediately, and let him work next season with Martin in preparation for Kahne’s 2012 arrival. That of course pushes out Alan Gustafson, one of the most loyal employees Hendrick has ever had.
Well, there’s no bigger battle right now than fixing Earnhardt’s team.
Earnhardt is heading into the fourth year of a five-year contract with HMS, and for whatever reason, Hendrick has been unable to give him the chemistry and confidence he had during a 15-win stretch from 2000 to 2004.
Earnhardt has remained supportive of McGrew, who graciously stepped into the hardest crew chief job in the garage and has helped the driver show flashes while operating under an intense spotlight. But for whatever reason, it’s simply not clicking consistently, and it may be time for someone else to get the chance.
This might be the one time, though, that Gustafson balks at a potential Hendrick reassignment. He’s built the No. 5 car to its current level, weathering a tumultuous period with Kyle Busch, a noncompetitive stretch with Casey Mears, and, finally, the pairing with Martin and a shot at last year’s championship.
Gustafson has earned the right to decline another rebuilding project, but is more prone to do anything the boss asks of him.
At this stage, it might be a request Hendrick can’t afford not to make.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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