Last week, the bubbling cauldron that is the motorsports media began to boil over once again, reaching a point where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. publicly asserted that his crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. is a capable mechanic and even that he himself would be willing to take some of the blame for his failure to run better than he has. His owner Rick Hendrick, someone who knows a little bit about putting together a winning race team, has also expressed confidence in the No. 88 bunch, assuring everyone that they can put it together and do it soon.
That Junior has visited victory lane far less than expected since his joining Hendrick Motorsports has been, to say the least, a grain of sand in the Junior Nation oyster. And everyone has a theory why the winless streak continues—from too many off-track distractions to an inadequate crew chief to the ever-comical “he’s driving the R&D car”, as if Rick Hendrick paid millions to hire the most popular driver in NASCAR to test brake setups. Proud members of the anti-Junior Nation gleefully suggest that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is simply a mediocre driver.
So what’s the real answer?
Drawing upon some years of experience covering this sport, the Official Columnist of NASCAR has appraised the situation. After some careful consideration, I am here to give you the main, inescapable, undeniably simple answer why Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has not won more races than expected at Hendrick Motorsports. Here it is:
His car hasn’t been ahead of the other cars at the end of races.
There you go. What, you were expecting something you could forward to Rick Hendrick? “Mr. Hendrick! Mr. Hendrick! Kurt Smith figured it out!” Sorry if you expected as-yet-unexplored insight only for a flash of the obvious.
I’m not trying to be sarcastic. There is a larger point here. This is the highest level of American motorsports. This is where the best of the best are found, not just wheelmen, but crew chiefs, tire changers and engine builders too. No team is going to trample on the competition all the time. The 48 team may have won three straight titles, but only one of them came with outperforming the other teams for 36 races. The 18 crew won eight races last year…and then zero in the Chase.
Junior isn’t the only driver seemingly not living up to expectations. Kevin Harvick has not won in over two years. Jeff Burton has one win in the last 36 races. How about this one: Tony Stewart, yes, that Tony Stewart, has just one win in his last 50 races, and that one came at Talladega, where victory is often the result of aero package and luck.
And in case no one has noticed, since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has joined with Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon has yet to visit victory lane. This may mean that Gordon is driving the R&D car at HMS now, but I doubt it.
Does anyone seriously question the ability of Harvick, Burton, Stewart, or Gordon to drive a racecar with the best of them? Does anyone think Todd Berrier, Scott Miller, Steve Letarte, or Greg Zipadelli/Darian Grubb, take your pick, need to be replaced on the pit box? Does Richard Childress need to hire some different crew members for the 29 and 31 teams?
(There were some grumblings from shortsighted people last year…writers even…who felt that Steve Letarte should have been replaced as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. This was after he won at least three races in 2007 with borderline prescient calls from the pit box. Letarte went from genius to weakest link in just one season.)
Hendrick Motorsports reigned over the NASCAR world in 2007, winning half the races and causing Junior Nation to lick their chops at the prospect of his leaving DEI for HMS. But 2007 was a unique season. Remember, there was the split schedule with the Winged Snowplow being run at all but the high speed tracks. Hendrick got a jump on the other teams with it, and Jack Roush sheepishly admitted that he did not devote the resources to the new car that he should have early on. On top of this, Hendrick was diversified enough to run well at the remaining races.
Hendrick enjoyed brief success by accepting the rules and working within them. By 2008, the rest of the teams knew better. Once they caught up, we had racing again.
The current car is also very demanding in its setup, and most drivers and crew chiefs have noted that there is very little margin for error in either direction. This may explain the lack of consistency from so many teams, Junior’s included. Matt Kenseth’s performance this season is a perfect example. It is incredibly difficult to set the current car up consistently to a driver’s liking.
Junior doesn’t lack motivation, despite his comment that he would rather have fun. He’s smart enough to know that nothing is more fun than winning.
He might not need a new crew chief either. Remember that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were going to part ways at the end of the 2005 season, each believing that the other was holding the team back until Rick Hendrick sat them down for milk and cookies. We now know better. They were just getting beaten by teams that were better at the time.
People critical of Earnhardt or Eury often fail to realize how tough it is out there. What’s “wrong” with the No. 88 team is that they’re up against the world’s best in stock car racing…competition tough enough to have kept a four-time champion out of victory lane since Charlotte in 2007. Every week, to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the driver has to beat Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. The crew chief has to outsmart Chad Knaus, Steve Letarte, Darian Grubb and Kenny Francis. The crew has to change tires faster than the 17, the 2, or the 11 crew. The shop has to build a better car than the guys at Roush Fenway, Joe Gibbs, or Richard Childress.
It all reminds me of a quote that I’ve always liked from Bobby Labonte. When he was struggling in 2004, he was asked by a reporter what it would take for him to return to his 2000 championship form. He replied, “I need to drive faster.”
It boils down to a simple answer because there are no simple answers. Teams struggle and drivers struggle and it’s not because any of them aren’t capable. This is as competitive a business as it gets. They’re all bringing their “A” game. Many people think Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is just a crew chief change or a shop change away from a championship. The reality is that any team has to beat the very best out there, no matter who is driving the car, making the calls or paying the bills.
That’s why they run the races.
- NASCAR’s own website published pictures of a deteriorating North Wilkesboro Speedway earlier this week, while discussing how the loss of NASCAR races there hasn’t hurt the local economy all that much. The pictures are sad, especially the ones that show grass growing through cracks in the asphalt. But I’m not getting the point of the article. With all due respect to the townsfolk, it isn’t the possible loss of jobs that has NASCAR fans upset about the loss of NWS.
- Everyone’s favorite cartoon rodent seems to be less prominent in NASCAR broadcasts these days, although if I owned a company advertising during races, I’d tell Fox to get rid of that dancing gopher while my company’s logo is on the screen. I wonder how much tawdry revenue Digger is bringing in. I expect there won’t be much more as more people wearing Digger T-shirts are laughed at or worse at NASCAR events.
- Last week’s Happy Hour discussed Travis Kvapil’s situation, now it seems as though A.J. Allmendinger appears to be the next worthy driver to be on the lack-of-sponsorship block. I tried to persuade Tom Bowles to get the Frontstretch to sponsor the 44, but he said he’d have to cut my salary, which currently ranges in untold millions. Sorry A.J., I’d help if I could.
- OK, Jeff Gordon has been running very well, but save for a couple of accidents, he was running well at this point last year too, until the unmitigated 43rd place disaster at Texas. He finished second in the fall race, so it would appear that the 24 team has figured out the problem. We’ll see.
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