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Crew chiefs and sharks' teeth

By BRANT JAMES
Published June 30, 2007


Crew chief Robbie Loomis, who had won a championship with Jeff Gordon, left Hendrick Motorsports with 10 weeks remaining in the 2005 season to become executive vice president of race operations at Petty Enterprises. He was replaced by 26-year-old Steve Letarte, a former tire specialist, mechanic and car chief who began his career at Hendrick sweeping floors.

Crew chief Chad Knaus was barred from the first four races of the 2006 season because of a rules violation on Jimmie Johnson's car before the Daytona 500. He was replaced by Darian Grubb, an unknown engineer. Johnson won twice - including the 500 - and finished second and sixth before Knaus returned.

This week, Knaus and Letarte were suspended for six races for illegal fender modifications before the race at Sonoma, Calif. With Grubb now running Casey Mears' program at Hendrick, the team elevated car chiefs Jeff Meendering (Gordon) and Ron Malec (Johnson).

No cause for alarm. Yes, in the increasingly technology-driven realm of racing, not to mention video phones, Knaus and Letarte can virtually be at New Hampshire this weekend. And another former Hendrick crew chief, Lance McGrew, will assist Malec because he helps change tires on pit stops.

But more important, Hendrick replaces crew chiefs like sharks replace teeth. One savvy thinker schooled in an atmosphere of success pops out, another pushes forward.

"For me probably the biggest challenge of the whole weekend is probably this (news conference) right here, " Meendering said. "We've got so much depth in our organization. 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."

Increasingly, other successful teams are showing a crew chief is expendable on a short-term basis.

"If the crew chief and team managers and those people have done their jobs, just taking one person out at the racetrack shouldn't make a big difference, " said Matt Kenseth, who won at California the week after Robbie Reiser was suspended four races.

Quotable

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on an XM Satellite Radio show this week:

Caller: "I want to know your opinion on whether or not you think DEI would be in the state it's in right now if your dad were still around?"

Earnhardt: "I think absolutely not. ... I think we'd all be in a whole different scenario. I think the company would be a whole lot better off. ... I know we'd still be successful because of the people that we had working there, but I know for a fact that if my dad was still alive I'd always want to drive for him. No question."

Is this 'the surge'?

The United States government bought nine JCB 541-70 "loadalls" used to wrangle disabled cars at the recent U.S. Grand Prix and plans to ship them to Iraq. Indianapolis Motor Speedway "Wing and Wheel" logos have been affixed to the heavy-lifting machines.