CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -The phone conversation between NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Alan Gustafson was short and to the point.
``'Hey man,''' Gustafson said Hendrick told him, ``'the 88 has got to run good, capiche?'''
Sure thing, boss.
Hendrick Motorsports, currently the most successful team in NASCAR, ended last season with a serious organizational problem. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top three spots in the final standings, but superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a distant 25th.
Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, went winless in his heavily sponsored No. 88 Chevrolet. He notched just five top-10 finishes, had his crew chief - who is also his cousin - fired midway through the season, and suffered through the most confidence-rattling season of his 10-year Cup career.
It was clear that getting Earnhardt's team back on pace with the other HMS drivers needed to be the top priority of the offseason. Although it's a companywide effort, the task of making it happen primarily falls to Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew and Gustafson, who led Martin to five wins last season and a runner-up finish to Johnson in the standings.
But Martin, Gustafson and the No. 5 team are already at the top of the sport, perhaps just a step or two away from winning the coveted Sprint Cup. So why in the world would they agree to help McGrew and Earnhardt rebuild a team that seemed lost so many times last season? The move required a total restructuring of shop practices, and the shifting of Gustafson's lead race engineer and a key mechanic over to McGrew's team.
``This is something that's near and dear to Mr. Hendrick's heart, and these two cars have to perform. It's his responsibility, and it's my responsibility,'' Gustafson said, motioning to McGrew. ``If that 88 car doesn't succeed this year, then the 5 is not going to succeed, either.''
Because the layout at Hendrick's sprawling motorsports campus differs from many other organizations, his race teams aren't all housed in the same shop. Johnson and Gordon are in one building, and the two teams established a system of efficiency and sharing from the very first day. Since Johnson's No. 48 team made its debut in 2002, Johnson and Gordon have combined to win 71 races and the last four Cup titles. The routine has never been disturbed, even during the teammates' thrilling 2007 championship race that saw Johnson edge Gordon for the title.
Things were never as smooth, though, after Hendrick merged his other two teams into a second building. The drivers changed, the crew chiefs changed and it was difficult to re-create the chemistry of the more successful 24/48 shop. Hendrick wanted the two shops to operate the same way when Earnhardt came to the team in 2008, but crew chief Tony Eury Jr. came with him, as did several of their team members.
Eury and his crew had their own way of doing things, and even though they were willing to adapt to the Hendrick systems, not everything fell into place with Gustafson's practices.
So when the wheels nearly fell off last season, Hendrick knew he had to demand that the 5/88 shop fall into place once and for all.
Neither team needed convincing.
``I have never in my career, in business or racing, challenged two guys and had them jump like Lance and Alan have done,'' Hendrick said. ``I want to have one team with two cars, and Alan was in agreement and ready to do it two races before the end of last year. I can not tell you how proud I am of that, and for Lance for not wanting to build his own deal, and instead saying 'I'm not going to do anything if Alan doesn't sign off.'
``It's amazing to watch these two guys work on this together, and I guarantee you they are going to have their stuff together this season.''
If there wasn't enough pressure already, the two teams have a daily reminder looming above them every day they are at the shop. Johnson's office, oddly, is not located in his shop, but instead in a long hallway above the shop floor of the 5/88 building. On display in the windows are his four consecutive championship trophies, and if the light hits them just right, the glare can be enough to make one turn away.
The crews see the trophies from the shop floor, and the shiny hardware is visible over McGrew and Gustafson's shoulders as they sit at their desks.
Nobody seems bothered, though, by what some could be perceived as an in-your-face display of success.
``That's just motivation,'' McGrew shrugged. ``Motivation can be a very positive thing.''
The two crew chiefs are now approaching this season as if they were one team, using plans and procedures as if everything and everyone were interchangeable. Both drivers are on board, which clearly helps in executing the new structure.
Martin, who came close to his first championship last season and has everything to lose in this venture, has been gracious in answering Hendrick's call for help.
``Our communication will be whatever level Junior wants it to be,'' Martin said. ``Our goal is to elevate the performance of two cars, and it will not fail. I am old, I have been doing this a long time and I know what I know: It will not fail. If it was doomed to fail, it would have been met with some resistance and we would have pleaded our case.
``But it will work, and I guarantee you it will work.''
Earnhardt, with nothing to lose, has no choice but to buy into the new plans. There's nowhere but up for him to go, and he's putting faith in McGrew that his crew chief will have it turned around by the time the season opens next month at Daytona.
``We cannot go back to the track and perform like we did last year,'' he said. ``I was embarrassed, the team was embarrassed and none of us want to go through that again. I think that willpower alone and our determination will not let that happen again.''

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