Hendrick turns attention to Earnhardt
AP Auto Racing Writer
Getting Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team back on track is Rick Hendrick’s top priority now that Jimmie Johnson has his record fourth consecutive NASCAR championship.
“We’re all over it, and we’ve been all over it,” Hendrick said Tuesday in a conference call. “It’s my primary focus here, starting Monday.”
Johnson gave Hendrick Motorsports its NASCAR record 12th championship in Sunday’s season finale, and Hendrick drivers swept the top three spots in the standings. Mark Martin finished second and won five races this season, while Jeff Gordon finished third and had one victory.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, went winless and was a distant 25th in the final standings in his second season driving for Hendrick.
Hendrick changed Earnhardt’s crew chief midway through the season, and assigned additional engineering support to the No. 88 team. Although his performance began to improve toward the end of the season, bad luck and mechanical problems left Earnhardt with very little to show for his efforts. Earnhardt had just five top-10 finishes all year, and admittedly struggled with his confidence.
“I’ve seen this happen with Jeff Gordon … you just go through these (slumps),” Hendrick said. “We know we can make the team better and it’s frustrating. The driver begins to think that no matter what he does, something is going to happen.
“We’ve had failures, we’ve had wrecks. If it could happen, it happened to that team. It’s just been really frustrating.”
Hendrick, meanwhile, said his 29-year-old niece is doing well after undergoing an emergency liver transplant Sunday in North Carolina.
He missed the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway after flying home Friday night to be with niece Alesha Gainey, who was healthy and headed to a Carolina Panthers game on Thursday night when she suddenly fell ill.
Hendrick said doctors aren’t sure what caused Gainey’s organs to fail, and although the liver transplant was successful, she’s in critical condition because her kidneys aren’t yet functioning.
Gainey is the daughter of Rick Hendrick’s brother, John, who was one of the 10 people killed in a 2004 plane crash. Also killed in the accident was Gainey’s younger twin sisters.
“It was never a doubt in my mind where I needed to be, and where I wanted to be,” Hendrick said of missing the race. “I would have loved to have celebrated with them, but I wasn’t in the frame of mind to celebrate. The good news is, the liver is working, she’s stable and we’re going to have a very good Thanksgiving.”