Hendrick Motorsports welcoming change in 2015
By Gray Caldwell
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There was certainly plenty to talk about when it was Hendrick Motorsports’ turn on stage at the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
On Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick noted that this year’s media session didn’t feel the same as usual.
“Normally when we come to this event, we don't have much change. We're usually just kind of rolling over the year,” he said. “This year is quite a bit different. I'm excited about it.”
The biggest change discussed at the media tour stop won’t happen until 2016. But it was officially announced on Thursday – Chase Elliott will race full time for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016, taking over the No. 24 Chevrolet SS in Jeff Gordon’s stead.
In the meantime, Elliott will drive a five-race schedule in the No. 25 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet SS in 2015, which will be Gordon’s final full-time Sprint Cup Series season.
“I've been so impressed with what he did last year in the (XFINITY Series) car, winning a championship in his rookie year,” Hendrick said of Elliott. “We've all talked about it. Every guy on this stage recognizes his talent, that one day he was going to be ready.”
But Hendrick made sure not to look too far ahead, noting that he wants Elliott to win another XFINITY Series championship before he steps up to the Sprint Cup.
Elliott took that to heart.
“The biggest thing is not losing track of this season, realizing 2016 is a long ways off. Knowing that you've got to make sure your priorities stay straight,” he said. “Just trying to make the most of this season and learn. Just kind of realizing that the job that I've done, you've got to step that up and know that it's got to be better to compete at that next level."
As for Gordon, he profusely thanked Hendrick – and vice versa – for their partnership over the years. And he said he plans to have a fun 2015.
“I'm really looking forward to just enjoying the heck out of this year, every moment of it, and hopefully that includes winning races and battling for the championship,” Gordon said.
Hendrick took it a step – or 14 – further.
“We've got a lot to do,” he said of the 2015 campaign. “Mr. Gordon has to win 14 races and a championship to go out in style. So, that's his mission.”
"I don't know where he keeps coming up with these numbers—the numbers continue to grow every conversation we have,” Gordon laughed. "So I have to top everything I've ever done before in my final season. Got it."
But the changes in the Hendrick Motorsports race shops for 2015 don’t stop with Gordon and Elliott. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne will enter the season with new crew chiefs.
Granted, both drivers are familiar with them.
“To have Keith Rodden back on the 5 team, I've worked with him for years,” Kahne said of his new crew chief. “I think the first time he was my engineer was 2004, so we've worked together for a long time and we've had a great relationship. We're friends.”
“It's going to be neat to get started."
Meanwhile, Greg Ives worked for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports as Elliott’s crew chief in 2014 and previously worked in the Nos. 48 and 88 race shop from 2006-10 as a race engineer for Jimmie Johnson’s historic run of five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
"We're really excited about working with Greg next year,” Earnhardt said of his new crew chief. “He's got a bright future. I'm glad I'm going to be a part of that ride. Hopefully we can hit the ground running.”
Earnhardt called Ives “a details guy,” noting that the two have spent time in the offseason discussing little tweaks to help the No. 88 team in 2015.
“I think he'll help me and Jimmie both with some fresh ideas, help us remain competitive and try to bump it up a notch,” he said.
As for Johnson, no such changes are in store for him and the No. 48 team. But the six-time Cup champion said the main change he is looking for is from the way the 2014 campaign came to a close.
"The way we finished up the '14 season is not one that I'm happy with or the 48 is happy with, and we've worked hard all season to make some great changes and be where we need to next year,” he said.
But even with all the change at Hendrick Motorsports as the 2015 season rapidly approaches, Hendrick said the cohesion at the company remains as strong as ever.
“I think we're jelled better than I've seen us in a long, long time,” he said. “Proof is in the pudding. We won 13 races last year. Engine shop had a phenomenal year, chassis shop, but we didn't get the big prize. So that just makes us hungry to go get it again.
“We're just looking forward to it, and I can't wait to get to Daytona."