The Frontstretch: The Cool-Down Lap: Junior, No. 88 Team Have Fight Club Moment at Richmond by Doug Turnbull -- Monday September 13, 2010

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“Have you ever hit rock bottom?” Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) posed this question to Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club as he challenged Norton to break away from his empty boring life, strip to the bare bones, and end up creating Joker-like social experiments and acts of terrorism. And while there were no face-disintegrating fights, acid-burnt tattoos, or explosions in the No. 88 AMP Energy Chevy’s pits or garage stall after Saturday night’s Air Guard 400 at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s 34th place, six laps down finish was a Fight Club act in its own right: rock bottom for a team that has been conspicuously disappointing since Junior joined the team in 2008.

No amount of talking and trying could save the No. 88 this week. Can anything?

“Virginia is for Lovers” is the longtime travel slogan of the state that Richmond International Raceway calls home – and Junior, paired with crew chief Lance McGrew were initially living that feeling as the No. 88 qualified ninth Friday for Saturday night’s race, a rare ray of sunshine in a long, fruitless summer stretch. But the duo knew that the race ahead would be a challenge, practicing only 38th and 27th-fastest in Friday’s two sessions. Out of Chase contention and with little to lose, McGrew and the AMP crew put an unconventional setup under Earnhardt, Jr. going forward.

Junior Nation — the legion of fans that once was an ocean of red, but now has dwindled to look more like a Doppler Radar scattered with spread smudges of green and red pop-up storms in the grandstands — propped up Dale Jr.’s starting spot with the flimsy hope that maybe the three-time Richmond winner would have something for the rest of the field come Saturday’s green flag. Junior starting ninth caused this buzz. Ninth! That’s how bad his last four seasons have been.

Last week at Atlanta, Junior ran as high as the top 15, actually turning heads at one time from my vantage point in the AMS media center. But fate and inevitability struck the No. 88 yet again, relegating the beleaguered team to an irrelevant 22nd-place finish. Hopes were dashed yet again. The Doppler Radar cleared from the stands at AMS and flicked off the TVs at home, only to tune in again to the same mediocre hope at Richmond.

When the green flag fell Saturday night, eventual top two finishers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch began picking off spots faster than a five year-old picks at scabs and were contenders within the first 100 laps. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., optimistic before the race that his new setup would leave him in the lead pack, fell from ninth to 22nd in about nine laps, struggled outside the top 30 soon after that, and settled into his resting spot around 35th by the race’s midpoint.

“I knew when the race started and the way it drove the first few laps, I knew we were probably going to be like that the rest of the night even though we were going to try to fix it,” Earnhardt, Jr. told SceneDaily.com’s Bob Pockrass. “I knew the chances of us hitting on anything were real, real slim to zero.”

The team, however, did try to fix Junior’s extreme handling problems (particularly through Turn 4) by adding multiple spring rubbers in the right rear, adjusting the track bar, even changing a shock. Late in the race and with no chance of a lead-lap finish, McGrew even pitted the No. 88 under green to make another major chassis adjustment.

Nothing worked.

The mad science project spawned the equivalent of blowing up the front porch with a K-Mart chemistry set, a million dollars’ worth of expenses at Richmond swirled down the drain like old milk. The only lesson learned? The new rear spring package and front spindles on the No. 88 that night were as useful as overweight and overpriced Defensive Lineman Albert Haynesworth is to the Washington Redskins – Dale Jr.’s favorite NFL team.

There were two extremely telling signs of the No. 88’s demise (it could be Junior’s or McGrew’s or both) Saturday night. First, look at part of Junior’s quote: “I knew we were probably going to be like that the rest of the night even though we were going to try to fix it.” How much faith does he have left in McGrew and the AMP crew? After finishing fourth in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in early July, he has only two top-20 finishes and has fallen from 11th to 19th in points. Almost every race in that stretch (and many others since McGrew took the helm of the No. 88 crew midway through 2009) followed the same pattern for the car’s handling: bad off the truck, OK early in the race, sagging at the midpoint, then nine-year old rental car-bad by the checkered flag. Junior’s relationships with both cousin and former crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. and McGrew at HMS have been love-hate, but this festering lack of confidence and constant negative feedback loop means that Plan B-McGrew cannot fix Junior and will not last.

The second really bad sign for the No. 88 Saturday night was the lack of attention it drew. With ESPN locked-in to Chase mode, the talented reporters that traverse pit road never did more than mention once or twice that the No. 88 was running poorly. Never did we hear about the “experimental setup” until Pockrass slipped to the sullen, non-black and yellow Chase hat-wearing section of the garage and pit road to get that scoop. Junior’s season has become as irrelevant as Ben Affleck’s acting career – so much hype early, so much disappointment recently. And now the storyline is old.

It is one that germinated in 2008 when, despite the No. 88’s Chase berth and 16 top 10s, Earnhardt and Eury Jr. kept leading early and faltering late in races. Then the results sank to Titanic lows in 2009 (five top 10s in 36 races: three with Eury, Jr. in 12 races, a 12th with Brian Whitesell in one race, and two in 23 races with McGrew) and similar results this year (five top 10s in 26 races, with the only top 5s coming at Daytona). We’re all used to this pattern by now. In fact, had Junior finished 24th instead of an epically bad 34th, there would be no scoop on his struggles.

But the No. 88 did hit rock bottom Saturday. Dale Jr. finished behind the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota of Casey Mears (21st, two laps down); the No. 36 TBR Chevy of Dave Blaney (30th, four laps down); the No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota of Mattias Ekstrom (31st, four laps down, Ekstrom’s first oval stock car start) and the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy of Landon Cassill (33rd, five laps down). All of those, sans the No. 83, are start-and-park teams, but had sponsorship Saturday and managed to outrun a fully-funded Hendrick Motorsports car. Junior did not wreck in the race, cut a tire, or drop a cylinder: The No. 88 was simply out-performed. Rock. Hard. Cold. Bottom.

What comes next for Junior and McGrew these next 10 races? More experiments? That didn’t go so well on Saturday and surely does not impress his generous sponsors. A run at 13th in points or “Best of the Rest” status? That’s as likely as Virginia Tech winning the National Title in College Football this year. The cold and ugly truth is there may be nowhere to go moving forward. Just like he said a year ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has to be at the end of his rope. Lance McGrew who, if you remember, won a Nationwide Series title with Brian Vickers in 1897 (actually 2003), has to be at his wit’s end, too. Junior fans, the decreasing number of No. 88 supporters that still sport his colors can only take so much more flack for wearing the hats and shirts of a 20th-place driver. If these last 10 races for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are as middling as both Junior and garage-mate Mark Martin’s have been all season long, the Nos. 5/88 shop on the Hendrick Motorsports property will figuratively look like the buildings that Tyler Durden (which Edward Norton had by then realized was himself the whole movie) watched explode in the closing scene of Fight Club. The only difference is, while the movie may have ended at that point, the No. 88 will have to do it all over again in 2011… with the same hopes and apprehensions.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m. (or whenever the Georgia Bulldogs are not playing) and daily as a traffic reporter on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com and is co-track announcer at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, GA.

Monday on the Frontstretch:
Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: Richmond-2 Race Recap
Fact Or Fiction: Which Drivers Have A REAL Shot At Winning The Title?
Bubble Breakdown: Conway, Robby Gordon’s Team Still Headed The Wrong Way
Running Their Mouth: Air Guard 400
Nationwide Series Breakdown: Virginia 529 College Savings 250

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Contact Doug Turnbull

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Brians Mom
09/13/2010 01:11 AM
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Jr. Nation is fast becoming Jr. County. I’m starting to think the Milkman is his real daddy and he has none of Dale Sr’s DNA.

phil h
09/13/2010 01:32 AM
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I almost wish Jr could rise up and win a half dozen or so Cup shows!It might get this boring Cup season new life. I mean who gives a crap who wins the Chase??

ElectricPeterTork
09/13/2010 01:56 AM
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Ah, Jr.

Didn’t the jet dryer lap him at one point?

Robin
09/13/2010 11:23 AM
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I feel bad for Mark Martin who had to give up most of the good members of his team to Dale,jr. therefore compromising his season (obviously not for the better) and then Dale can’t even get a win this season with everything that Hendrick handed him on a silver platter.

shoeman
09/13/2010 01:11 PM
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Jr. should sit out one race and let Morgan Shepard see what the car can do.

Mike
09/13/2010 01:28 PM
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I think it’s time for Lance to go but not because he did anything wrong. He should go for the same reason the coach gets fired from a bad basketball team: you can’t fire the players.

haynesy
09/13/2010 01:48 PM
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I listened to Jrs radio all race from the back grandstand and he did not give any negative feedback. He gave outstanding detailed feedback of exactly what the car was doing. It is not his fault if Lance cannot figure out what to do with it. being a race car driver I cannot figure out how you can continually make a car not turn any better. Every change Lance made to the car made it worse. Seriously…what gives? Don’t tell me Jr doesn’t have any talent look at his resume… 18 wins, Daytona 500, All-Star race, 2-Nationwide championships. You don’t get a resume like that by not having any talent. He runs competitively in the nationwide series against the SAME drivers when he drives his own equipment and actually has the backing of employees that want to see him succeed.

Kevin in SoCal
09/13/2010 02:01 PM
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Yes, Dale Jr has talent. But he’s fallen into the realm of once-great drivers like Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarret, Darrel Waltrip, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton. They used to win big all the time, but then they slowed down and just took up space. Its not the crew chief’s fault.

Mike In NH
09/13/2010 02:58 PM
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This was Ekstrom’s 2nd stock car start, not first. It WAS his first OVAL start.

Junior can win with the right crew chief, he showed that by winning in NW this year with Tony Jr. (though granted, that was at Daytona, a wild-card plate race).

I think the corporate Hendricks team is just the wrong place for him. He needs a team that’s good at paying attention to individuals. I would put EGR on that list (look what they’ve done for Jamie McMurray). Time for him to go to EGR and get the 8 back on the track again.

Phil
09/13/2010 03:04 PM
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He may be a great driver in the past, but unless Pops decides to have a change of heart, Junebug will not be a contender anytime soon. There is a better shot of reconciliation between himself and Teresa than of Junior being a Cup Champ.

The fact that Ekstrom outran him when he had never seen an oval in race conditions is as damming a fact of how bad they were as anything else was. McGrew should be removed but who wants that job?

That vote of confidence by Hendrick is all you need to know about interest in being Junior’s CC.

Michael
09/13/2010 03:13 PM
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The wins that Dale Jr. has were in most cases due to a much better car than his competitors . Particularly at the super speedways . DEI built the best cars and engines for super speedway racing . And for a short while Dale Jr. had the best ever super speedway driver as a coach .
Dale Jr. has very little idea of what to tell the crew when the car needs changes . He radios very interesting and colorfull descriptions of what the car is doing , but those descriptions are mostly wrong . I’ll tell you how i know that . Because Dale Jr. has gone through an array of proven , talented , winning crew chiefs in the last 10 years . And not one of them could make him competitive . Sooner or later it has to become clear that he’s a nice guy , a great asset to the sport , the son of a Legend , but he’s an average driver . He is never going to win regularly . He is never going to dominate the sport . He is never going to win more than one championship ( if that ) . I’d love to see him be competitive every week , or at all . But it isn’t going to happen . When you have a proven car , team , all the money in the world , and team mates who are always faster , there can only be one conclusion . The Facts are the facts .

yankeegranny
09/13/2010 03:35 PM
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Went to the Richmond race early and sat and people watched for the better part of 3 hours before the race. Don’t know where you were, but at least 60% of the people who walked past me had 88 hats, shirts, coolers, etc. So in my opinion, you’re way off base if you think Jr Nation is leaving the 88. To back up my opinion, when it started to sprinkle for a few minutes, there were so many people leaving( almost entirely 88 fans, going down the escalators out of the Commonwealth Towers) that they caused a traffic jam getting out of the parking lot and onto the highway, Me, I went back to the bus and watched college football on the computer, but then I am a JR fan, not a NASCAR fan. In fact, I am so interested in the chase, that I went home and bought my husband Direct TV’s Sunday Ticket for his birthday to watch for the rest of the season, instead of the Chase.

al
09/13/2010 03:37 PM
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jr, should wake up an get out of there, jg/jj is the stars thrre not jr or mark,rick is just farting around ,an knows the money is coming in as long as jr stays there,then jg/jj can go faster they run good all the time,but crying for more speed now, go figure the 5/88 team is in a shop alone,like two black sheep , when feb comes again i will start watching again, better luck next year ,i hope

mikeyfan5599
09/13/2010 03:39 PM
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The question that should be asked is will Dale finish ahead of Last years 25th place points finish. He is falling like a rock in the water. And I see the Nation making every excuse in the world except the driver. I had hot pass and I never heard Junior say anything. Heard the Crew Chief, and the spotter, but not Junior, I think he was content not having to worry about missing his football game Sunday Night, that is what was more important to him after the race, whether the ‘skins would be the Cowboys.

Ken
09/13/2010 04:10 PM
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Regardless of who he runs for or who the crew chief is, Jr. fades as the race progresses. He either has a stamina or concentration problem. He needs to get in better shape and work on his concentration and forget about his other interests when he is racing. They have changed everything but the driver and the results are the same.

jl
09/13/2010 04:13 PM
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I wonder if he & Lance have even tried the 24 & 48 setups. Ego has to be out the window by now. Re-learn to drive their setups, before he retires.

dooscoop32
09/13/2010 05:49 PM
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It’s just amazing to me that they never hit the set-up on the 88 car. Never. Even the law of averages would dictate around a 50% chance. So, what is going on that they NEVER hit the right set-up? That makes no sense at all.

Michael
09/13/2010 06:40 PM
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Thats easy , Dale has no idea whats wrong with the car other than it doesn’t feel right . What is any crew chief supposed to do with that info ? To be a success , a team has to have clear and precise input from the driver . Some drivers are very good at that . Others not so good . Some are terrible at it . Dale is in the latter category .

mason gary
09/13/2010 07:58 PM
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The media has ceated a monster. They seemed to think he has much more talent than he possess. How many innocent crew chiefs will it take before people understand where the problem lies?

Marybeth
09/13/2010 08:30 PM
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Doug, At Atlanta last week Jr. was 10th with 30 laps to go, that is top ten, which I guess is where you got you top 15…? When Wendy interviewed Jr. before the race, he said that he hoped that he had speed. He did not. Mark has been saying that he hasn’t had speed either. “5 yr.old picks at scabs.” & you want us to believe that you are a professional writer…? @haynesey, If Lance made the car turn better for Jr., he would be fired. I believe that what Rick wants is 8 titles for JJ, to beat the records of Earnhardt and Petty. As long as Jr. is at HMS he will not be competitive. Have you ever heard of the 25/88 car running competitively for a championship? I think that Rick was lying to all of us when he said in the press conf. where it was announced that Jr. was going to HMS, that he would get Jr. wins & championships. If Rick wanted Jr. winning, he would be winning. He does not. I believe that it was his intention all along was to use him for R&D so that he could not run competitively against JJ. Rick knows that he is better than JJ and he wants the records for the Hendrick name, & especially not Earnhardt. Oh yeah, & at the same time he wants the money Jr. brings in to finance getting JJ 7 or 8 championships. I believe that it is intention to erase the Earnhardt name from Nascar; i.e. Dei, & bury Jr.‘s career. In the past few weeks there has been a plethora of articles ripping Jr. to shreds, makes me wonder if Rick isn’t offering a sizeable reward to whomever can come up with the most disparaging story, & he has takers that I never thought would stoop to that level; Tom Bowles, Jenna Fryer, Terry Blount, Mark Kreigel, etc.. No one writes nasty pieces on JJ & JG, they don’t dare, Rick would not allow it. He is doing nothing about these vile pieces on Jr. Why not…? Ray Evernham has said on NN that he worries about Rick’s health due to worry about the 88 team, just let Jr. go and he doesn’t have to worry anymore. :) We certainly don’t want anything ontoward happening to poor little Rick. Think of how awful Jr. would feel. The only Christian thing to do here is for Jr. to go race for another team.

thomas dalfonzo
09/13/2010 09:11 PM
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This is what Junior gets for refusing to be like his father. His dad drove with tenacity, aggressiveness, and a burning desire to win. He also would get the most out of even the crappiest equipment.

Gary0302
09/13/2010 10:10 PM
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Mike Tyson, Jennifer Capriati, John Daly, Barry O, Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Curt 2010
09/14/2010 10:10 AM
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Well after reading thru what everybody has said, Why cant people see that the equiptment that Jr and Mark have is hand-me downs-from Jimmy and Jeff? Come on people its not hard to see. I truely believe if Jr had something to work with you would be seeing results everybody has been looking for. I wouldn’t blame Jr if he walked in Ricks office and said he had had enough.