Having just written about Dale Earnhardt Jr’s radio venting  at Bristol Motor Speedway and his 6 Days to Race Day  DVD, I was hesitant to write about the driver again because I don’t want to come off as some sort of Dale Jr shill. Nor do I want to be a blogger who writes just for clicks (and we all know Dale Jr stories get clicks). But a while ago I pointed out Dale Jr’s attitude problems on the radio  and wouldn’t be doing my job as a responsible journalist (or this blog justice) if I didn’t equally cover his improvements.
Last summer, I wrote:
During the [Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500], Dale Jr came over the radio to complain about everything from the COT’s lack of down force to how much he hates racing at Pocono. He would also frequently complain about the car when Lance McGrew made a change that he didn’t want – at one point he snapped at his spotter, TJ Majors, because he wasn’t happy that McGrew made the change.
I pointed out the fact that Dale Jr would spend more time complaining about the car than he would telling McGrew what the car was doing so that he could make correct adjustments. For a few moments during last Sunday’s race at Bristol, he was doing the same thing. Fortunately, in that instance it was under caution and allowed him to vent and re-focus.
At the beginning of Monday’s Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Dale Jr had a solid car. He started in the top 10 due to his points’ position and for much of the first half of the race, he ran in the top 10.
At that time, he was giving McGrew detailed feedback. He would say that he was a “little tight in the center” or that he “needed forward bite.” This is the sort of feedback he needs to give McGrew. It’s much more helpful than saying the car is “pushing like a truck.”
When Dale Jr breaks down a corner and tells McGrew exactly what the car is doing throughout the turn, McGrew should be able to make adjustments that target only the problem areas. If Jr just says that the car is pushing, McGrew may make a change that corrects it, but also changes the way the car drives off the corner, even if before the change Jr was happy with how it drove off.
On Monday, Dale Jr was being as detailed as I’ve ever heard him. He broke down the corners, kept an eye on his water and oil temps, and even asked where others we beating him. Dale Jr was doing everything a driver is supposed to do during a race.
But, it’s easy to be that poised when things are going right. It’s when things go wrong, that a driver needs to be on top of his game.
Around the halfway point, McGrew instructed Dale Jr to pit a little closer to the wall so that exiting he could get around Matt Kenseth. In following the instructions, Jr pit close to the wall and the jack handle hit the inside wall, slowing his pit stop down. He lost several positions.
Last year, this sort of thing would have taken Dale Jr out of his game and he would have resorted to his generic (yet all too familiar) complaints about the car. (Pushing like a truck, for example.)
Instead, Dale Jr told McGrew that they shouldn’t have changed how he got into the pits because he didn’t want to be further back in the field. From there, he was done with it. Part of it was because Dale Jr just moved on, and part of it was because McGrew owned up to the mistake.
Now, one could argue that this was just a fluke. A one-time deal. The no. 88 team could get over one hurdle, but not two. Right?
Around lap 300, Dale Jr lost more positions when the team put rubber in the rear. Dale Jr was not pleased with losing positions. But after McGrew explained to him why they lost positions, Jr understood. Again, he moved on.
Less than 100 laps later, Jr made his was back up to the top 10. He was still giving very detailed feedback. He was asking for more forward bite and he wanted the car to rotate better in the corner, but he also told McGrew how the car was driving off. He was very precise.
On the penultimate caution with seven laps to go, McGrew made the call to bring Jr down pit road for four fresh tires. Throughout the race, Dale Jr stressed how important track position was at Martinsville. But, instead of complaining about giving up track position, he did what he was told.
While this move didn’t pay off for him, it was good to see him listen to his crew chief without argument. He showed that he trusts McGrew.
I could see McGrew’s logic. I believe Dale Jr was running 14th when they brought him in and he restarted in 14th. The problem was that even with fresh tires, it’s hard to pass at Martinsville. So, to some, it wasn’t worth the gamble.
The real issue, however, was that Jr restarted on the outside, which was the slower line all day. He had to wait to get down to the low side, and once he did, he never could make up the positions. He dropped down to around 17th before working his way back to a 15th place finish.
Any fan who has watched Martinsville knows that track position is more important than fresh tires. And given his comments during the race, Dale Jr believes this as well. Still he chose to listen and trust his crew chief.
And while that may not always lead to top 10’s, 5’s or wins, it is at the very least, a step in the right direction. If Dale Jr can continue doing what he did on Monday, it should help McGrew make better adjustments on the car. And that should lead to better results, and maybe even a championship.