During the first 300 laps of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr patiently made his way through the field to the top 10, with the crew improving the car on each pit stop. By lap 318, Jr made his way up to sixth and was challenging Jamie McMurray for fifth. The Amp/National Guard Chevy was running well, and Jr looked to be a legitimate contender.
Then, the unthinkable happened: a pit road speeding violation.
Earnhardt Jr was penalized for being too fast entering pit road. He was sent to the tail end of the longest line, per NASCAR’s rules.
Being Earnhardt Jr is tough. He’s got a famous last name and a huge fan base. While no driver is more popular than Earnhardt Jr, no driver is more scrutinized in the media. And, when he struggles, the media attention and the focus on his performance issues are magnified because of who he is.
So when a pit road speeding penalty threatens to take away a good finish, it’s no wonder that he gets pissed off. The problem is that when he gets pissed, he has the tendency to get hung up on whatever pissed him off causing him to lose focus on the task at hand – recovering.
Last year at Pocono, Earnhardt Jr was complaining on the radio about everything from the COT’s lack of down force to how much he hates racing at Pocono. He also complained about adjustments crew chief Lance McGrew to the car. He finished the race in 28th place.
All of the blame for the finish can’t go on Earnhardt Jr – the car’s handling and pit crew also factor in – but every second he spent complaining about the COT or Pocono was a second he could have spent telling McGrew what exactly what the car was doing. But, he was so upset that he lost focus.
On Sunday, when he was forced to the back of the pack, he was understandably upset and dejected. When the race restarted, Earnhardt Jr began complaining that the car was “pushing like a truck.” This was an indication that he was starting to lose focus because the feedback was vague and negative. When he’s happy, the feedback is more detailed: “loose in, good in the center, tight off.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Being in the back of the pack certainly changes how the car feels and I don’t doubt that Jr’s car was actually pushing. But, when he’s upset/unhappy in a race car, little issues are compounded by his anger. A tight race car can seem like he’s about to wreck every lap because his anger is magnifying the problem.
McGrew knows this, and suspected that was what was happening. McGrew then radioed:
Don’t lay down on me, bud.
To which Earnhardt Jr replied:
I can’t lay down here. This is Bristol. I don’t ever [expletive] lay down. Don’t ever say that again on the radio. Don’t need the whole world hearing that.
My guess is that Earnhardt Jr responded in that way because he knew that someone in the media would hear it and write a story about the appearance of a rocky relationship between driver and crew chief of the No. 88. And the last thing Earnhardt Jr wants is more negative media attention.
Shortly after that, McGrew clarified that he meant not to lose focus of the big picture. I think, given Earnhardt Jr’s history, McGrew was right to take that approach. Jr does have a history of losing focus and not recovering from issues/errors because he gets hung up on them. So, I don’t have a problem with him essentially telling Jr to refocus, even thought he might have chosen poor words.
After McGrew mentioned that, Earnhardt Jr went into a profanity-laced tirade on the pit road speeding penalty. Every driver does this (see Juan Montoya after Indy speeding penalty), so Earnhardt Jr’s reaction was not uncommon, despite attempts by some media members to make it seem out of the ordinary.
Well, anyhow. To get busted at Bristol for [expletive] speeding by what-the-[expletive]-ever it was and when I didn’t [expletive] gain nothing on nobody, it’s not the way it should be. There should be a different way of doing it. You bust your [expletive] to get up there. Now they can’t be [expletive] [expletive] about every [expletive] little nitpickin’ [expletive] thing. We’re out here racing our [expletive] off.
Someone said, after the race, that McGrew indicated that he riled up Earnhardt Jr on purpose – sorry this is second hand and I can’t find anyone or anything to verify this. (I’m going to assume it is true, though.)
I don’t have a problem with McGrew telling Earnhardt Jr to refocus. When Earnhardt Jr had his most successful seasons, Tony Eury Sr was his crew chief. Earnhardt Jr viewed Eury Sr as a father figure and probably had that type of relationship with him. He was less likely to snipe at Eury Sr out of respect, and he viewed Eury Sr as the authority. So, if Eury Sr told him to shut up and drive, he would do so.
Earnhardt Jr viewed Tony Eury Jr as more of a friend than an authority, and therefore was more willing to speak up/fight back when he didn’t agree. This is what led to their tumultuous relationship that ultimately resulted in their split.
McGrew needs Earnhardt Jr to view him as an authority, if the team is to be successful. I thought McGrew essentially telling Earnhardt Jr not to lose focus was a step in that direction.
But, I was surprised to find out that his intention was to rile Jr up. The way it was explained to me, it seemed McGrew riled him up because he thought Earnhardt Jr would drive better angry. I do not agree with this because I know that Earnhardt Jr tends to drive worse when he’s angry. (After missing pit road at Daytona, he made an overly aggressive move to get back in line after Brian Vickers tried to block him and caused a big wreck, for example.)
But, after thinking about it, I think McGrew knew that he had to let Earnhardt Jr vent his frustration about the pit road speeding penalty, otherwise he would focus on that instead of working towards a decent finish. So, he got him riled up enough to force him to vent. (We don’t know if Jr would have vented on his own, without mcgrew’s pushing him.) And while I don’t agree with the method (lay down comment) I do agree with the philosophy behind it (let Earnhardt Jr vent and move on).
Still, McGrew’s “tough love” had little to do with Earnhardt Jr’s rally. McGrew’s words didn’t motivate Earnhardt Jr to drive better, nor did they directly make him refocus.
The exchange took place under caution for a big wreck caused when Mark Martin and Greg Biffle got together. The caution allowed Earnhardt Jr to slow down a little, vent his frustration, gain his composure, and refocus. And that’s what allowed him to rally back to a seventh-place finish.