Published on July 22nd, 2009 | by Michael J Smith2
Earnhardt Jr, McGrew Still Learning Each Other
It was only a matter of time before fans and media members started pointing out that Dale Earnhardt Jr has dropped two points positions in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings since Lance McGrew took over as his crew chief. Those who are bringing this fact to light are doing it to show that the blame will be deflected anywhere but squarely on Jr’s shoulders because, they assume, many fans think Jr. can do no wrong.
Tony Eury Jr blamed the media for placing unrealistic expectations on the team, which he thinks ultimately led to his demise. I’m not going to spend time debating whether or not I thought Eury’s dismissal was warranted. That’s irrelevant.
The fact is that McGrew is Jr’s crew chief and the two of them together have to figure out how to improve on-track performance.
Back when Dale Jr joined Hendrick Motorsports, he was strong out of the gate, winning the Bud Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duels. That set the bar pretty high for the season in which his only win came on a fuel mileage gamble. Last year, Jr ran consistently in the top 10 and top 5, only to fall during the Chase.
His slide continued this season, fueled by driver mistakes and ill-handling cars. Rick Hendrick was forced to make a move to improve the team.
Much like the way he came out of the gate in the 2008 season, Jr. finished 12th in his first race with McGrew. This wasn’t as big of an achievement as winning those first two non-points-paying races in 2008, but it was a considerable improvement over how he had been running.
Again, the bar was set high (or perhaps just higher than it should have been). If you look back at the statistics, Tony Eury Sr was the crew chief for Dale Jr during the bulk of his wins. Eury Jr and Dale Jr teamed up for two wins in nearly four years together.
The first seven races in which Eury Jr served as crew chief, Dale Jr has an average finish of 25th. In the last seven races Eury Jr served as crew chief, Dale Jr had an average finish of 22nd. In McGrew’s first seven races, Dale Jr has an average finish of 21st.
So, to think McGrew was going to come in and turn the No. 88 into an instant winner would have been ridiculous. The problem is that most fans believed that would be the case. Some media members fueled the fire too, indicating that the change would mean an improvement because the problem was not Dale Jr.
I don’t think the problem is Dale Jr… completely, anyway. I still believe the problem is communication, which is partly Dale Jr’s responsibility and partly the crew cheif’s responsibility. Dale Jr and Eury Jr could not communicate. Both have hot tempers and strong wills, meaning they couldn’t coexist for the greater good. That’s why Eury Jr was not Dale Jr’s crew chief at the start of the 2005 season. And, after four tumultuous years, they two were forced to part ways.
The problem with McGrew is that he and Dale Jr are still figuring out their communication. It could take a full season before both are fully comfortable. Sure, there are cases where the crew chief and driver hit it off instantaneously. Look at Kyle Busch and Steve Addington or Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson. But, chemistry/communication is key.
To give an example of how important it is, Gustafson and Busch teamed up to win four races in three years together. Martin and Gustafson have won four so far this season. The difference? Chemistry.
I don’t mean to give Dale Jr a pass. We know there’s pressure when you’re as popular as he is, and truth be told, he probably never will live up to the expectations placed on him. That doesn’t mean he has no talent, and is not capable of winning races or a championship. It just means that with the Earnhardt name comes the burden of seven championships.
But for right now, we have no idea what the No. 88 team is capable of, as they go through this transition. It could take a while for this team to figure things out, and time will ultimately tell whether or not they do. In the meantime, don’t expect Dale Jr to win. Don’t expect Dale Jr to make the Chase. All we should expect from Dale Jr is that he keeps working with McGrew to get things headed in the right direction.