Hendrick names crew chiefs for Gordon, Johnson

Hendrick names crew chiefs for Gordon, Johnson

Hendrick names crew chiefs for Gordon, Johnson
June 30, 2007

LOUDON, N.H. (AP) -- Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will both have a new voice in their ear during Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates are beginning a six-race stint without crew chiefs Steve Letarte (Gordon) and Chad Knaus (Johnson). Both were suspended for six weeks and fined $100,000 in the aftermath of their cars failing inspection last week at Sonoma, Calif.

In both cases, the deep Hendrick team -- with more than 500 employees to choose from -- decided to name the car chiefs on Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet and Johnson's No. 48 as interim crew chiefs.

Jeff Meendering will take over on top of the pit box for Letarte and Ron Malec will do the same for Knaus, while also continuing to go over the wall during pit stops in his role as tire changer.

"We all have to step up a little bit and it's going to be hard to replace a crew chief by me just stepping up and saying 'I'm crew chief' because I still have other jobs to do on the car and all my guys still do their normal jobs, which we do 100 percent every week," Malec said. "It's going to be a disadvantage to us for sure.

"I've talked to my guys and they're all behind me 100 percent on their decision to make me the crew chief and we still have a lot of support from other team members, other (Hendrick) teams."

Meendering said the biggest challenge for him in his new role is dealing with the media.

"We've got so much depth in our organization," he said. "We've beefed up our track support a little bit, brought a few extra guys with us and I think it's going to be just as smooth as it's ever been."

For the drivers, the biggest change will be in their communication with the pits.

"It's just getting used to dealing with somebody else on the radio," Gordon said. "It's all about communication when you're trying to fine-tune the car. It's about giving good information and getting good feedback from one another and just building the chemistry and that's something that Steve (Letarte) and I did immediately.

"We had great chemistry and so now I have to do that with Jeff Meendering and, so far, it's gone very well. I mean he's very in tune with what goes on with this team, with our setups, and he and Steve are really close so they can communicate a lot with the preparation coming into the weekend."

Despite also being docked 100 points each for the Sonoma infractions, Gordon heads into Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300 leading the standings by 171 points over Denny Hamlin, while Johnson fell from third to fifth, 366 points behind Gordon.

Speed chart

Having new crew chiefs certainly hasn't slowed down Johnson and Gordon.

Those two, along with rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, led the way in the final practice Saturday.

Johnson was fastest with a lap of 127.102 mph, followed by Montoya, winner of last Sunday's road race at Sonoma, at 126.897 and Gordon at 126.783.

Also among the fastest on Saturday were Kevin Harvick at 126.761, Clint Bowyer at 126.694, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, both at 126.505, and pole-winner Dave Blaney at 126.479.

Gaining ground

Toyota officials were buoyed by the manufacturer's first Nextel Cup pole.

Dave Blaney, driving for Bill Davis Racing, got it done Friday, winning the top spot for Sunday's race and giving the Japanese auto maker one of its few bright spots of a frustrating first year in NASCAR's top series.

"For Toyota, it's another step in our process of slow gains that we're making every day," said Andy Graves, senior manager for Toyota Racing Development in NASCAR. "Hopefully, it will provide some momentum for all of our organizations as we get ready to move into the second half of the season."

Graves said he got congratulatory phone calls from people who work for Toyota and its teams and even from competitors.

"It does add some credibility to our entire program and the direction we are headed," Graves said. "Sometimes, when you're making small gains each day, it's hard to measure where you are. But seeing our first pole is obviously a great achievement and shows that we're definitely headed in the right direction."

He said it

"Don't know, don't care. We don't do that kind of stuff, so we don't have to worry about it."

-- Penske Racings' Ryan Newman, when asked about the penalties handed out to the Hendrick Motorsports teams for being caught with illegal modifications to their front fenders.

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