Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. refuse to bend as dismal season winds down
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season has prompted questions about the team's philosophy
Is Junior's effort, with few successes, enough to appease those around him?
Hendrick and Junior have been steadfast in their refusal to adapt to each other
On one end of the Hendrick garage sits the sport's corporate king, Jimmie Johnson, polished and prepped to go for a fifth straight championship when the checkered flag falls at Richmond Saturday night. Armed this season with five victories of his own, making the playoffs is a mere formality for the cookie-cutter All-American hero, wife and now new baby Genevieve in tow. The man oozes political correctness with every word he speaks, whose worst moments are a few private swears and forgetting to put that seventh sponsor in the post-race monologue.
On the other side, sitting in the greasy spoon section we have the Goofus to Johnson's Gallant, the blue-collar, beer-guzzling Dale Earnhardt Jr. whose Chase chances long ago faded into that empty Bud Light bottle in the corner. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver will officially miss out on the playoffs for the third time in four years, the marketing diamond in the rough an unpolished gem in a world where the sport's rise and fall hinges on his continued engagement within it. Instead, his every move reflects a deep-seeded introversion these days, a lack of confidence and self-esteem permeating his 18-month tenure with NASCAR's version of the New York Yankees that has seen his stock fall faster than the 2008 collapse of AIG.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, Johnson's rock steady presence combining with the rest of Hendrick Motorsports to give racing's version of royalty a support system on which to ascend to the throne. But as we head toward the end of another hopeless season, the bigger question to ask about Earnhardt is when both sides realize the current philosophy is destined for a disastrous end to this mediocre monarchy.
For now, in the face of a stats sheet where Junior's 19th in points, armed with just 68 laps led -- on pace for his lowest total since he entered the Cup Series full-time in 2000 -- the company line continues to be, "onward and upward" in the face of catastrophic results. Just last week, Mr. Hendrick himself reiterated that not only would there be no major tweaks to the No. 88 team this year, he expected Dale Jr.'s off-again, on-again fling with crew chief Lance McGrew to stay superglued together through the fall and an entire 36-race schedule in 2011.
"If you miss the Chase and you just decide you're gonna change something just to be changing it, I think that's a mistake," Hendrick claimed last Saturday. "I've never tried to do that."
It's an interesting comment, especially since HMS teammate Jeff Gordon got Steve Letarte and an overhaul the second he missed NASCAR's Chase in 2005 with Robbie Loomis. Instead, this time around the owner is grading on effort more than tangible results, while noting the team has more top-10 finishes (six) and is six spots higher in the standings than a year ago.
"I keep my options open," he said. "But at the same time if the driver and the crew chief are getting along and working together and they're trying, that's all I can ask for."
On a fifth-grade playground type of level, that's acceptable. Yet considering the AMP / National Guard sponsorship deal is rumored to be in the richest of any in the sport -- I've heard numbers that go as high as $40 million -- you wonder if everyone directly associated with Junior Nation, from the boardroom to the body men working overtime on building cars that fail, are happy with a Gold Star pin and a round of applause for NASCAR's highest-paid individual athlete. Now armed with the same number of races as predecessor Tony Eury Jr., McGrew's numbers atop the pit box aren't just as bad -- they're worse:
Eury: 48 races, 15.9 average finish, 986 laps led, 1 win, 11 top 5s, 19 top 10s
McGrew: 49 races, 20.8 average finish, 124 laps led, 0 wins, 3 top 5s, 8 top 10s
Even during Eury's 12-race stretch in 2009 that got him fired, Junior still led more laps in as many races (90, 4) than he has all this year with McGrew (68, 4). At the same time, Johnson is busy winning championships while Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin made the Chase last year, combining for a 1-2-3 HMS dynasty while Junior labored in obscurity down in 25th.
That led to additional moves over the offseason, including Martin's main engineer Chris Heroy getting switched to the No. 88 in a series of personnel shifts designed to bring the No. 5/88 shop "closer together." But all it's done is make Martin worse and Junior, well, about the same: the No. 5 team will miss the Chase this season, too, while Martin's enduring, perhaps, his worst stretch since "retiring" from Roush at the end of 2006.
So what, pray tell, is there to indicate no changes are necessary? For those who haven't, I implore you to listen to one of Earnhardt-McGrew's radio transmissions over the course of a 500-mile race. It's truly the definition of dysfunctional love-hate, an argument nearly every weekend diffused by the same type of post-race comment: "This is the type of relationship we have."
"I have a hard time biting my tongue and always want the last word and all that good stuff," said Earnhardt Jr., who is mild-mannered outside of the car. "And I'm in 120-degree hot car and at the moment I feel like I'm doing the majority of the work. And right or wrong, I'm just saying that's how you feel, whether it's right or wrong."
But does swearing in frustration at McGrew's constant changes -- adjustments which often times send the car backward late in races -- prove the answer as they drown consistently in their own poor performances? Such epithets would scream Dr. Phil's couch and a parting of the ways almost instantaneously. But it's not so easy in the world of Junior, the blue-collar man in a corporate environment who seems to be increasingly misunderstood by those who employ him.
"Half the stuff Junior says ... to go from Mark Martin, who is early to everything, first one to speak, so involved, to Junior on the opposite end," said Johnson back in April. "You go from one extreme to the other. You know what's coming out of Martin's and you don't know what's coming out of Earnhardt's mouth."
A New York Times article in August spoke volumes about the current state of Junior Nation, posting most of the blame on a Hendrick culture that has yet to understand the "Earnhardt-speak" primitive language of how he communicates the problems with his car. Johnson claims there, as he has several times through the years, Earnhardt never seeks advice from the current champ. Yet maybe that's because the private son of a fallen legend is only comfortable communicating with a select few.
"He's raw, unrefined, which appeals to his fans," said Mark Martin in the Times. "He's way above average showing respect to older statesmen. He doesn't have a whole lot in common with guys like Jimmie Johnson."
In the early, most successful years, Earnhardt was paired with a second father in Tony Eury Sr. who knew how to turn all the one-word answers into the right adjustments that led to over a dozen race wins, a Daytona 500 victory, and two top-5 point finishes in a four-year span. Early on at Hendrick, he and Eury Jr. seemed to have the same type of chemistry: let's not forget, just two years ago this summer he sat second in the standings with a victory and the type of momentum wave we hadn't seen in years. Eury was the lone attachment from a familial core group at DEI, a band of brothers broken only by an ugly argument with Earnhardt's stepmother that led to his exit from the family business at the end of 2007.
But we also haven't seen that clicking chemistry since, Hendrick's detail-oriented philosophies eventually weeding out the old processes, wearing down Eury and failing to catch on with a driver who'd rather go tailgating than tear it up at the gym or learn to file TPS report-like feedback over the radio. In his team's defense, you can't blame them; why change what works when Johnson has four titles sitting on his mantle? Clearly, as time went on, there seemed to be a growing impatience that Earnhardt isn't adapting to the rigors of Hendrick -- and not vice versa. So it goes, Hendrick's increasing push to mold Earnhardt after their philosophies failing in the face of their logic.
"In the end, a person has to decide whether they're committed to something or not," said Ray Evernham, Hendrick's former crew chief who remains close to the car owner. "That's just the bottom line. He's talented enough to win races. He's talented enough to win championships. But I listen on the scanner and you just can't be aggravated all the time."
In many ways, the clock is ticking for both Earnhardt and NASCAR. There are signs of chinks in the armor of the man's seemingly unlimited popularity; just a few months back, a Pepsi Charity vote saw Johnson, not Earnhardt, garner the most votes to win a $100,000 grant the latter would typically walk away with by forfeit. He's been all but invisible on television in recent weeks, the No. 88 fading into the background with just one top-15 finish since Daytona, once again leaving new fans with neither results nor enough airtime to grasp onto Junior Nation. Sure, he did a cool little appearance racing Shaquille O'Neal on the latter's self-titled ABC show this summer. But it's a funny clip that amounts to 15 minutes of fame when those people turn on the race and the only time they see him is when he makes a mistake, yells at McGrew, or gets put a lap down by one of his teammates out front.
Some have said it's time for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports, yet just voicing the concept is a virtual impossibility. The five-year contract runs through the end of 2012, and in a sponsor-crunch world where even Jeff Gordon is still locking down a primary backer for next season don't doubt that AMP/National Guard contract continues to feed a bunch of mouths at the Hendrick table. So without a pink slip as an option, you'd think the car owner would have to eventually cave and make more changes ... right? Ten races would be plenty of time to throw another Letarte-type figure in there, see if it works and if the chemistry sparks a sudden resurgence?
The sad truth is that might not happen, either. Both Johnson and Gordon have another chance to bring a championship home to a system that clearly isn't broken. When there's one rotten egg, you don't throw out the whole bunch; it's not good business sense. As long as AMP and National Guard keep sending their checks, success at HMS is and will never be tied to where the No. 88 finishes each week. The organization had one of its most successful seasons without Junior's help, leaving them unwilling to cater to a man that's become little more than a financial investor lending a hand.
So what's left is an unrelenting, increasing pressure on Earnhardt to change, but that's like telling a farmer to put on a suit, head to Wall Street and snatch up a new 9 to 5 job as a corporate drone. You can make a movie from that script, but in real life change is but an impossible dream. And so we're left with a stalemate, a sad story to what could have been a fruitful partnership together at Hendrick. All we know is no changes will clearly lead to no answers; and the longer Earnhardt goes stuck in this slump, the more you wonder if his career will wind up in the trash can by the end of his five-year tenure as well.