Jimmie Johnson's pit crew expands

CONCORD, N.C. -- Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will have a primarily new pit crew as part of a plan by crew chief Chad Knaus to shore up depth on the teams of Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Knaus and Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Earnhardt Jr., will take three pit crews to the track each weekend. That will give them a talent pool of 18 crewmen to draw on if they encounter injuries of performance problems.

"We've always tried to work on the depth of our crew, but we've never been able to successfully pull that off," Knaus said on Wednesday during the NASCAR Media Tour. "We think we've got it going in the right direction. It make take a little bit, let's be honest, to get everything gelling in the right direction.

"But once it hits it'll be exciting."

The lack of pit crew depth at HMS came under the spotlight during the Chase at Texas when Knaus swapped pit crews with Jeff Gordon's team in the middle of the race after the four-time champion crashed out.

Knaus made the move permanent for the remainder of the season, with Gordon's crew helping Johnson win the title by 39 points over Denny Hamlin.

Letarte, who was Gordon's crew chief before team owner Rick Hendrick paired him with Earnhardt during the offseason, was given his crew back after the season to work with NASCAR's most popular driver.

Knaus said four of the members of the No. 48 team before the swap remain in the mix for his crew, adding he has not finalized anything and probably won't have a set six for the entire season. The others have moved on to other organizations.

"I can change at any point and time," Knaus said. "We've always had that to a degree, but our backups weren't necessarily ones that could get it done. I wouldn't say get it done, but maybe guys on the back end of their career."

The No. 24 team of Gordon and No. 5 of Mark Martin will work under a slightly different system, with six full-time crewmen for each car and another four to share between them for depth.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.