Hendrick continues to believe in McGrew despite sluggish season
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew have struggled to jell on the track
Earnhardt Jr., McGrew’s tense radio exchanges are said to be healthy not harmful
There is a disparity between McGrew’s results and those of Tony Eury Jr.
|Earnhardt's Hendrick Crew Chiefs|
On the one-year anniversary of the union between Lance McGrew and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., I could only think of one thing...
Not everyone sees it. In fact, for those directly involved with the team, they blew out the candles on a cake frosted with denial. Despite a litany of poor finishes as of late that have sent Junior plummeting to 16th in points, the company line is everything's hunky-dory over at the No. 88.
"They're going down the right road, for sure," Jimmie Johnson told me at the end of April. "You can see it in the step, the way [Earnhardt] talks during meetings. I think Lance and him have connected well.
"They're not afraid to say what they want to each other, speak their minds. And that's so important in sports. That can be viewed differently from the outside. Is it constructive, is it destructive or whatever it may be, but you look at the turnaround that team has had this year, it's definitely going in the right direction."
But is Earnhardt's way of sniping really constructive? That's a far cry from how it was viewed just one year ago, when the focus surrounded his relationship with cousin and former crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. After a rough start to '09, in which Earnhardt and Brian Vickers triggered a multi-car wreck in the Daytona 500, subsequent pit road mistakes and poor-handling cars culminated in a 27th-27th-40th stretch in May 2009 that sealed Eury's fate. What triggered the month of discontent? The driver's outward unhappiness with a program he knew wasn't up to speed.
"You go sit in that car," Earnhardt told a group of reporters a year ago at Darlington. "It's not fun." The short answers and long faces only worsened, and Eury seemed to privately and publicly struggle with handling Earnhardt's unhappiness. The two would eventually confide in Rick Hendrick they'd be all right if the car owner chose to make changes, and not long afterwards the trigger was pulled and Eury was out the door.
So why does everyone hold a different view of this second attempt at pit road matrimony when we're going through the same thing? One year later, the removal of that family connection makes the Earnhardt-Eury tension seem like a schoolyard squabble. At Darlington this year, a crash that led to Earnhardt using a backup car had him visibly frustrated to the point that he was looking for the nearest bus to throw his crew chief underneath.
"I'm just the driver," he said when asked how the No. 88 could fall behind. "Go in there and talk to Lance."
One week later, the tension built in a Dover presser that consisted of short, succinct responses and a tinge of anger over a season's that's quickly turned the wrong corner.
"I just get pissed when my stuff isn't good, you know," Earnhardt said. "Hell, it's what you are supposed to do, you aren't supposed to be happy about it."
That's the Earnhardt angst we saw in 2009, a buzzkill to the Polly Positive comments from everyone else at HMS. The sour mood carried over into Sunday, with a car that was so far off handling-wise, he pulled down pit road at one point thinking the steering in the car was broke. It wasn't. Losing seven laps in the process, he ended 10 laps down in 30th with no permanent diagnosis as to what was wrong and a crew that was none too happy working on a mystery problem.
The disgust on the radio from Earnhardt has increased; he's swore at his crew chief on multiple occasions, although both claim harsh language is no skin off each other's back. But unlike last year, this latest string of discontent has been labeled healthy, not harmful, with the organization taking the philosophy that one bad stretch does not necessitate a change.
"You don't let one race or a bad situation destroy the chemistry that's there," said Hendrick this week. "They have a tremendous amount of confidence in each other. And Dale has told me as late as this week that he's very confident in the team. We just had a bad week."
Is it really just one bad stretch of races we're looking at, though? Just a simple glance at the stats makes you wonder whether things are headed in the right direction. A comparison with Eury reveals the numbers between his tenure and McGrew's aren't even close, with Earnhardt down sharply in every category to the point it's impossible for McGrew to catch up. Even during Eury's rough start to '09, Earnhardt led more laps than during McGrew's recent 12-race tenure (90 to 58) that has things "headed in the right direction." If you take out the plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, the duo hasn't scored a top-5 finish together since Michigan in August, while in 2010 alone HMS teammates Jeff Gordon and Johnson have 10, with 1,298 laps led to Earnhardt's 58 in that same stretch.
To the No. 88 team's credit, it has learned from the mistakes of Eury, with McGrew aggressively fighting any type of criticism in the press. But at 16th in the standings, the facts don't lie: Earnhardt is the lowest of six teams receiving Hendrick chassis and engines, and is now heading into a stretch of tracks (Pocono, Infineon) that are notoriously his worst on the circuit. Considering the tightly-packed group near the top, it wouldn't be surprising to see him end June outside the top 20 based on past history alone.
I'll say this much; McGrew's a championship-winning crew chief and if Earnhardt does go 0-for-2, you can only point the finger at the mechanics so much. Since the Car of Tomorrow's debut, he's scored one win in 100 starts, hardly a track record that'll win you a title let alone get you in the Chase. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver may talk a good game, but all too often when the green flag drops he gets worse, not better, over the course of 500 miles. Hendrick's politically-correct style has never jived with Earnhardt's free spirit, and at the halfway mark in a five-year deal you wonder how much longer he'll choose to fail chemistry class.
You'd think Earnhardt could go to Mark Martin for support, but the disease of discontent has spread to the No. 5. An offseason move to combine both their resources hasn't clicked, with Martin's team in the midst of a winless season of its own. Even at its best track, Dover, the team lurched home 15th with a handling package that Alan Gustafson claimed is struggling to find speed with the new spoiler.
All this evidence adds up to a giant question mark for Hendrick. If there's a change to be made, he knows Charlotte is the place to do it, just like he did with Eury a year ago. The two-week home race stint typically serves as a time to take stock, re-evaluate and prepare for the long summer stretch. Failing to act almost assuredly leaves McGrew at the helm through early September.
Whether it'll happen is anyone's guess. But for now, at least in public, the organization continues to rally behind its man for the No. 88.
"Usually, finding a big chunk of speed seems to be easier to find than the small little pieces that follow that make you really competitive," says Johnson. "It'll take more time to do that, more communication and they'll be ready."
Meanwhile, Eury is happier now in his new role developing Danica Patrick and others at JR Motorsports, one year removed from running Brad Keselowski's part-time program and leading him to a handful of top 10s. It's clear at this point he wasn't the problem in getting the No. 88 up to speed.
What's unclear is when, if at all, the organization will necessitate a second divorce to try to fix it.
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