It's the Pits
Dale Earnhardt's axed crew chief questions the Intimidator's focus
Dale Earnhardt's aloofness from his teammates and preoccupation with his business interests have contributed to his downfall as a racer, according to his former crew chief, Larry McReynolds. "A driver has to be part of his team today," says McReynolds, who last week was ordered to work with Earnhardt's teammate, Mike Skinner, as part of a crew-chief swap that owner Richard Childress hopes will shake some life into his underachieving operation. Earnhardt's Daytona 500 victory in February is the only win in four months for the seven-time Winston Cup champion and the only win this season for Childress's team.
"Talentwise Dale's still there, but the competition has certainly caught up, and I question his total focus," says McReynolds. "The days of showing' up at a track on Friday, then hightailing it out of there after the race on Sunday—without even talking about what the car was doing, and then maybe driver and crew chief talking to each other once during the week—and showing up at the next track the next Friday, those days are gone."
That had become Earnhardt's pattern because he has so much going on. His 1997 income from various businesses and endorsements was estimated at $19.1 million by Forbes. Only $3.6 million of that total came from driving for Childress. Among Earnhardt's enterprises is a Busch Grand National-Winston Cup team, employing his son, Dale Jr., as one of the drivers.
"Take Mark Martin," McReynolds says. "As good as he is, and as many races as he wins, he visits his shop once a week and spends almost a full day there. People like Mark, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton have tunnel vision about their race cars. They've got other things going on too, but they know what their bread and butter is."
Coincidentally, Martin earned his season-leading fourth victory on Sunday in the Miller Lite 400 at Michigan Speedway. Earnhardt finished 15th, not bad considering he was forced to start at the rear of the field in a backup car after having his primary ride sideswiped and thrown into the wall die day before.
Earnhardt refused to address McReynolds's remarks on Sunday, but in talking about the crew-chief switch earlier in the week, he had said, "I don't know that it's chemistry or personalities. Larry and I have too good a relationship to have had conflict."
The Earnhardt-McReynolds breakup ended 18 months of essential failure for what had been heralded as a dream pairing. Earnhardt had sought out McReynolds, hoping to break a slump that began in March 1996. McReynolds had made regular winners of the late Davey Allison and then of Ernie Irvan. But try as he did to come up with winning car setups for Earnhardt, he says, "I don't know that I ever fig-tired out what he was looking for."
McLaren's G.M. Behind Success
Anyone trying to explain why McLaren has returned to the fore of Formula One—five wins in the last seven races heading into the French Grand Prix on June 28—should look no further than McLaren's enigmatic general manager of 14 years, Ron Dennis, who plays Grand Prix racing's technological and personnel chess game as well as anyone.