By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went into Richmond with an optimistic outlook. He stated that he was committed to turning around his No. 88 team, and that he wanted to stop being the pun of all the NASCAR jokes that people tell these days.
How little did Earnhardt know that he would open himself up to even more jokes and criticism just days later. It was utterly inconceivable how bad his team would perform at one of his best tracks.
Earnhardt started ninth at Richmond, but at no time in the event did he make any progress towards the front. In fact by just 30 laps into the race Earnhardt found himself in the bottom half of the field, and dropping like a brick.
When all of the dust settled, and the 2010 Chase field was made official, Earnhardt was left yet again shaking his head. There he sat 34th on the pylon, smack-dab between Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil.
Their equipment is supposed to be far inferior to that of Earnhardt’s, yet there he was. The most popular driver in the sport finished six laps down, in what was possibly the worst race of his entire career.
For the past two seasons now Earnhardt has failed to make the Chase, and the question has been: What’s wrong?
To really understand what is wrong with the No. 88 team you have to go back to where it all began to unravel for Earnhardt himself. That trend began back in 2005.
In ’05 Earnhardt’s long-time crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was offered a higher role at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. For the first time in the youngster’s career ‘Pops’ was not on the pit box.
In addition to the loss of his crew chief, Earnhardt’s crew was in essence swapped completely with his teammate Michael Waltrip’s in an effort to strengthen the entire organization.
That season Earnhardt struggled mightily to finish 19th in the points. This was his lowest ranking in the final standings to this point in his career.
The next season the teams were swapped back, but the chemistry was broken, and so was the confidence.
From his rookie season in 2000 all the way up to the 2004 season, Earnhardt showed incredible progression each year. In his rookie season he won twice, but inconsistency and lack of patience taught him a rough lesson early.
By 2004 Earnhardt was molded into a championship contender who was racking up several wins per season, including an incredible six wins during that ’04 campaign. In his first five seasons Earnhardt captured 15 checkered flags… In the six seasons since, he has just managed to stand in victory lane three times.
So what’s wrong?
It seems incredibly simple to me… When Tony Eury Sr. was on the pit box, Earnhardt won. When he was no longer there Earnhardt began to struggle.
This isn’t at all shocking.
Jimmie Johnson has not had any other crew chief than Chad Knaus during his Sprint Cup career. As a result his crew chief knows exactly what his driver wants, and the two can basically finish each other’s sentences.
Imagine if all of a sudden Knaus were to step down, would Johnson perform the same?
Jeff Gordon was on top of the racing world in the late 1990’s. The now four-time champion, racked up three titles in just four years when Ray Evernham was turning the wrenches. Evernham left Gordon at the end of the 1999 season to form his own race team.
Now that Gordon has been separated from his crew chief, he hasn’t been quite the same.
I know most drivers would love to have a Jeff Gordon ‘struggle’ season, but in all honesty the definition of his career since Evernham has to be considered a struggle when compared to his early time in the sport.
The saving grace for Gordon is that Robbie Loomis, who took over after Evernham’s departure and now Steve Letarte are no slouches. They aren’t Evernham, but they are still talented crew chiefs.
Earnhardt’s problem in my opinion is that he has been matched with crew chiefs, who to be honest have never shown that they can get it done on this level.
Tony Eury Jr.’s career Stats As A Sprint Cup Crew Chief
Avg. Start: 18.0
Avg. Finish: 17.8
Now let’s compare that to the career stats of Earnhardt’s current crew chief.
Lance McGrew’s career stats as a Sprint Cup Crew Chief
Avg. Start: 18.5
Avg. Finish: 20.3
As you can see the definition of each of these two guys resumes would have to be mediocre. Each crew chief has had time with other drivers, and didn’t have much success in those stints either.
In fact Lance McGrew has never been able to guide a driver to a better points finish than 15th. Not only that, but his only Sprint Cup victory came as Brian Vickers’ crew chief, when Vickers made contact with Jimmie Johnson, that crashed out the top-two drivers on the final lap at Talladega in 2006.
Now for a final comparison, let’s check out Tony Eury Sr.’s career stats as a Sprint Cup crew chief.
Avg. Start: 13.2
Avg. Finish: 15.7
The only solution that makes sense to me for this problem that has grown over the past five years is to either convince Tony Eury Sr. to come back somehow, or to recruit a proven veteran crew chief such as Doug Richert.
Richert as we know led Dale Earnhardt to his first championship in 1980, and more recently he led Greg Biffle to a second place finish in the point standings in 2005. I don’t know if he is actually on the Hendrick radar, but he is currently a free agent.
As this situation continues to get out of hand he wouldn’t be a bad person to look to.
Regardless of what does happen, I think the days of saying that no changes will be made because, ‘the chemistry between Earnhardt and McGrew looks strong,’ are officially over.