Is there a fix for Dale Earnhardt Jr. — quick or otherwise?
First thing first. With five races remaining in the 2009 season, Hendrick Motorsports’ first responsibility is locking up its fourth straight championship.
Once that’s accomplished — and there’s little doubt that a Hendrick driver will raise the Sprint Cup title at Homestead in November — the next point of business must be creating a working solution for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team.
In his second season of a five-year contract, Earnhardt is 22nd in the point standings. He’s never finished outside of the top 20 since moving up to the Sprint Cup level full-time in 2000.
On Friday, Earnhardt could no longer mask his disappointment.
“I’m about to the end of my rope on it,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been riding it out, but I think there comes a point, though, where you don’t want to ride it out anymore. It’s been a long year. I really don’t want the year to be over with, because I like going to the racetrack every week and racing, but the last several — well, all year, it’s been so low.
“The highs have been not very high, and the lows have been terribly low. So that’s hard to want to get back up and try again the next week, when you take such a beating, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s cousin, long-time crew chief and a casualty of the team’s lack of performance this year, shares the pain.
“It’s a real shame,” Eury Jr. said. “I feel real bad for him. People that have been around Dale Jr. for any length of time know he’s capable of driving a car. Sticks ain’t lined up. Sometimes things don’t jell, and I think that’s what you have.”
In late May, owner Rick Hendrick replaced Eury Jr. with veteran Lance McGrew — but not before three other potential crew chiefs declined the offer. Neither Earnhardt nor McGrew knows at this point whether they will remain together in 2010.
Earnhardt acknowledges the position is a “tough job.” Anyone who signs up to be Earnhardt’s crew chief faces intense scrutiny from NASCAR’s largest fan base. Any crew chief who accepts the role must be willing to deal with flak from a driver that has an acute feel for the car but struggles if the setup does not suit him.
The perfect candidate would dictate the direction of the team and command the respect of the driver. Earnhardt thrived under the authoritarian style of his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., who leads the No. 88 Chevrolet at JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and remains fiercely loyal to his nephew. But Eury Sr. insists he’s content with his current job.
Earnhardt doesn’t want the sole responsibility of making the decision on a crew chief. He believes HMS management is better qualified to make that call. But Earnhardt “has fun hanging out with” McGrew and has shown improvement throughout races, even though the results don’t reflect their gains.
“Nothing’s wrong with how that’s going for the most part,” Earnhardt said of his relationship with McGrew. “Hell, you don’t even know if Lance wants to do it. What the hell? I wouldn’t want to do it.”
In the 19 races since McGrew jumped in, Earnhardt has posted one top-five and two top-10 finishes and dropped three positions in the point standings.
“We just haven’t been able to put the finishes together for one reason or another,” McGrew said. “I’m hoping that, with a little bit of time, that consistency comes for both of us.”
But the melodrama continues. Earnhardt hit a low at Auto Club Speedway on October 11th. That followed a promising run at Kansas Speedway the week prior, where Earnhardt led 41 laps before the engine expired with 35 laps remaining in the race.
The team picked itself up and rolled into California, where Junior qualified 37th, ran as high as second and averaged a 12th-place position in the race. Earnhardt was riding 10th when Ryan Newman hit the rear quarter panel and knocked the valve stem out of his tire. With five laps left, the tire deflated, causing Earnhardt to slow on the front straightaway and trigger an eight-car crash.
When the team unloaded at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Thursday, the results were no better.
“We go out, and we were top 15 in practice, and we went out and tried to qualify, and we’re one of the worst cars here,” Earnhardt said. “We don’t know why or have any answer for it. All the other cars qualified fine, did well, backed their times up in practice, and we didn’t even get close.
“We looked ridiculous (Thursday) night. So it’s like really encouraging one day, and then the next day it’s equally discouraging. And that gets really old.”
Earnhardt is not comfortable being the odd man out. Certainly, he knew in an organization that boasts two champions, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, he’d be expected to deliver. Eury insists that was a challenge Earnhardt embraced.
Now add Mark Martin to the equation. Not only is Martin one of the most respected racers in the garage, he also developed almost immediate chemistry with his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, scored five wins this season and is currently sandwiched second in the point standings between Johnson and Gordon.
I think Dale Jr. is out of his comfort zone. He grew up racing in the family. When he had to go outside of that comfort zone, I am not sure he has ever gotten his legs under him yet.
I’m not sure how they are going to fix that.
Listen to me, Dale Jr. is a great driver and he can get the job done. Right now though, his confidence is shaken and he needs to get back into some familiar territory with some familiar faces for him to perform at the best he can.
Given Earnhardt’s immense popularity, it’s detrimental to both the driver and ultimately the sport to have the situation fester this long. Despite the depth and wealth of talent at Hendrick Motorsports, no one within that organization has developed a solution for the No. 88 team — the only full-time Hendrick car outside of the Chase.
Hendrick met with the No. 88 crew on Saturday. Following the race, he admitted that he’s “as frustrated” as the team. Hendrick added the entire organization is “committed to helping get that car on track.”
“I thought we had turned the corner at Loudon,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt, who was sixth before he tangled with David Reutimann with 17 laps remaining in that race. “It was probably one of our better cars, and then California, Kansas, good car, real good car, and then this week a very disappointing qualifying run, and then we had the problems with the transmission in (Saturday night’s) race.”
Saturday, Earnhardt was plagued with mechanical problems again when the No. 88 Chevrolet lost fourth gear after Lap 124. Prior to the malfunction, Earnhardt had climbed from 39th to 18th.
“When you feel like you’re snake bit, it’s hard to show up and try to pretend that everything is great,” Hendrick said. “I told them, this can’t last. We’ve got too many smart people over there to not fix it. We’ve been right on the edge of if we could have finished two or three of those races and not have been swept up in a wreck, we wouldn’t be really talking about it.”
For Earnhardt, however, not finishing races has been a reoccurring theme. In 14 of 31 events this year he failed to finish on the lead lap. Hendrick said the perception that “people doubt Earnhardt’s commitment” has been “eating him up.”
Eury Jr., who has raced with and against Earnhardt since they were teenagers, knows the depth of his former driver’s commitment and ability. He worked alongside his cousin for most of his 18 Cup wins and both Busch (now Nationwide) Series titles at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Eury refuses to interject himself into the situation, but he believes Earnhardt could benefit from additional testing of the new car. He uses Richard Childress Racing as an example of an organization that fell behind the curve when NASCAR implemented its testing ban.
Eury exhausted his own arsenal of setups with Earnhardt while he was still crew chief. Earnhardt showed promise the first season at Hendrick with wins in the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel at Daytona and a points race at Michigan. He posted seven top fives and 11 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races.
Not long after, the team attempted to use the No. 48 team’s setups even though Johnson enjoys an extremely loose-feeling car. As the new car evolved, Eury had difficulty adapting the platform to suit the driver.
“Testing would help benefit him because they could try to learn that profile quicker,” Eury said. “You come to a race weekend and try to figure stuff out, well, you’re kicking a ball. This was my problem at the beginning of the year, and I told Rick this. I had no confidence walking into the racetrack. I had Jimmie’s setup. I had my old setup. I had (Jeff Gordon’s) setup, and I walked in the garage with all three. And I was totally confused on which way to go when I got there because I wondered, ‘Which one is he going to want this week?’
“But when I came to Hendrick, I was like, ‘I’m doing this right here. If it don’t work, it’s my ass. I’m fine with it. I’m confident with it, because I knew that’s what works and that’s what I’m going to run. And when we came out of the gate, we ran.”
The team led laps in 22 of 36 races and qualified for the Chase the first season. Earnhardt’s only two DNFs came at Talladega in October after Carl Edwards ignited a 12-car wreck and in the season finale at Homestead when a wheel bearing failed.
The 2009 campaign, by contrast, started with Earnhardt missing his pit stall at Daytona, drawing a one-lap penalty for parking outside the box and wrecking his Chevy in an incident with Brian Vickers that collected 10 cars. Earnhardt was plagued with an engine failure in Fontana the next week. In the first third of the season, Earnhardt posted a season-high second at Talladega and top-10 finishes at Las Vegas (following a stern admonition from Hendrick) and Martinsville.
After a miserable 40th-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May, where no adjustment could be found to appease the driver, Eury knew a change was imminent.
“When they removed me, I knew things weren’t going to get any better,” Eury said. “No matter what I did over here, one person isn’t going to make a race team. It never has, it never will, and whoever says it does is a liar.
“If you look at a good race team and you look at the two or three people down below that guy — that’s your race team. That’s who makes it happen are those three together. There’s no one person that’s going to make a race team great. That’s what they’re missing. They need to make a couple of changes and make things better and get their driver’s confidence back up.”
Eury has heard all the armchair analysis — “He falls out of the seat. He has too many outside interests.” But he doesn’t buy it. Although there were times he lost faith in his own ability, he never stopped believing in Earnhardt.
Eury is convinced that Earnhardt is willing to do whatever it takes to return to his old form — even if it means seeking the support of a sports psychologist.
“I’ve talked to him several times and said, ‘Look, you’re still a great race car driver. You just have some bad things happening. You just have to do your time here and do the best you can every week and try to make it better.’ He’s definitely stepped that way, but they’ve got a long way to go.”
If there is no vast improvement on the No. 88 team next season, what are Earnhardt’s options? At 35, Earnhardt is still young enough to appeal to many organizations. His father’s former boss and friend Richard Childress was interested in Earnhardt during the last round of negotiations and still believes there’s “a lot more he will accomplish.”
Certainly, JR Motorsports could eventually expand into an operation similar to the arrangement that Stewart-Haas Racing shares with HMS. Earnhardt enjoyed the best years of his career at DEI, a smaller, family-owned organization. Driving for JRM would offer Earnhardt the best of both worlds without losing his own identity in the process.
But for now, everybody is committed to finding a fix at Hendrick Motorsports.