By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 30th this week at Dover International Speedway, and at no time in the entire week did it appear he would find himself anywhere close to the lead of the field. This race marked the one year anniversary of Lance McGrew taking over as crew chief, so it was supposed to mark real improvement, yet it was possibly the worst race for Earnhardt since the race that caused Hendrick to pull the plug on Tony Eury Jr.
In a race that was pathetic to watch for the No. 88 team, following the race Earnhardt and McGrew were left shaking their heads… They don’t know what’s wrong. Quite honestly Rick Hendrick doesn’t know what’s wrong either or it’d be fixed by now, so this begs the question… Who do you blame Earnhardt’s struggles on?
When you look at the situation it is extremely complex, because honestly there are three people who have just as much reason of being at fault as the others. Of course the three in question are the three I have already mentioned: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Lance McGrew, and Rick Hendrick.
Let’s start with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt had a fast start to his career, he won two straight Nationwide Series championships in 1998 and 1999 before moving to the Sprint Cup Series. When he made it to the Sprint Cup Series Earnhardt made an instant splash. Between 2000 and 2004 he captured 15 of his 18 career wins to date, however in the nearly six years since he’s only tallied three wins.
Many attribute this to Earnhardt having too many interests outside of racing, and that’s hard to argue with. He owns a race team (JR Motorsports), a bar (Whisky River), an entertainment group (Hammerhead Entertainment), he has had something to do with the ownership of two race tracks (Alabama Motorsports Park, and Paducah International Raceway), he even has his own candy bar in stores (Big Mo’), oh and don’t forget to add in his personal endorsement deals with Wrangler, Adidas, Sony, Nationwide Insurance, and GoDaddy.com. Between all of these business ventures you would think one wouldn’t have much time to think at all, then you add the fact that he is a race car driver on top of it all, and there is reason to believe that maybe he isn’t as focused on his driving as he once was.
However something major happened at the end of 2004 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. His longtime crew chief Tony Eury Sr. stepped down, after a six win season, and since then he hasn’t been the same. This isn’t unprecedented to see a driver suffer after losing their longtime crew chief. Remember when Ray Evernham left Jeff Gordon? This could be the case for Earnhardt, who may just need to continue searching for that right guy to make the calls on the pitbox for him.
Speaking of crew chiefs, Lance McGrew is the second candidate to shoulder the weight of the blame for Earnhardt’s slump. McGrew has had success in the NASCAR Nationwide Series as a crew chief, as he helped guide Brian Vickers to the 2003 championship. However his Sprint Cup Series career has been iffy at best. In 108 career races atop the pit box Mcgrew has just one victory, which if you remember came with much controversy. Brian Vickers won the race by crashing teammate Jimmie Johnson and the leader of the race Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap at Talladega in 2006. So is it simply that McGrew maybe doesn’t have the necessary traits needed to be a successful crew chief?
Perhaps McGrew is more suited for being a research and development role, where he prospered in 2007 and 2008. McGrew played a key role during those seasons getting Hendrick Motorsports ahead in the COT development… seems with Joe Gibbs Racing catching up that this would be a great time to get McGrew back into the lab. Whatever the case McGrew even mentioned when he first came on as Earnhardt’s crew chief that he didn’t want to be the final answer at crew chief, as he likes to be more behind the scenes. The recent episode where Earnhardt and McGrew were joking around after Darlington about their performance is even more troubling, as McGrew promised a hard-nosed no-nonsense approach to turning the Amp Energy chevrolet around.
Then there’s car owner Rick Hendrick himself. Hendrick as we all know is a future hall of fame car owner, but is he maybe to blame for Earnhardt’s recent struggles? What do I mean? Well sure Hendrick has won nine Sprint Cup Series championships, and 191 races in NASCAR’s elite series, but what isn’t mentioned there is how sluggish the fourth team at Hendrick Motorsports has always been.
In fact in the past 15 seasons the 88-team (Which was the 25 car up until 2008), has only finished in the top-12 in the point standings twice… just twice in 15 years! Ken Schrader finished 12th in the 1996 point standings, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. equaled that feat in 2008. So already Earnhardt has equaled the best point finish for this team in a decade and a half. Another staggering stat is that the car that Earnhardt drives has won just five races in the Hendrick stable during this stretch of mediocrity, and even more surprising is the fact that no driver has won more than once in the car since 1995.
So there are the cases for each candidate, so who do I blame?
In my opinion the reason for Earnhardt’s frustrations since 2008 is not the driver, and no it’s also not the crew chief. That’s right I’m going to shock a lot of people with my opinion, but I honestly believe the blame belongs to Rick Hendrick. The simple fact that he hasn’t been able to make this team competitive in such a long period of time is completely outrageous. Every other team in his stable has at least one Sprint Cup Series championship since 1995, and a win total deep into double digits, but not the one that Earnhardt is now behind the wheel of. Is it that he is focusing too much on his other two drivers going for their fifth championship? Or is it maybe that the team has been haunted?
Who knows, but the simple fact is that this team has been rubbish since 1995 lays the blame on the shoulders of one man… Rick Hendrick.