The Frontstretch: Even Hendrick Not A Magical Fix For Martin, Earnhardt by Thomas Bowles -- Monday March 9, 2009

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Even Hendrick Not A Magical Fix For Martin, Earnhardt

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 9, 2009


No matter how many cars you have running on the Sprint Cup circuit these days, it’s difficult to get more than one to run competitively each week. For proof, look no further than Penske Racing, whose lead driver Kurt Busch simply dominated Sunday’s race, while teammates David Stremme and Sam Hornish, Jr. both struggled and failed to run better than 23rd.

Occasionally throughout history, there’s an exception to the rule of thumb; back in 2005, Jack Roush pulled the miraculous feat of getting all five of his cars to make the Chase, and Richard Childress Racing went three for three in 2007 and ‘08. But far more often, multi-car teams find themselves split in two amidst a package of bad luck, poor performance, and an inability for team chemistry to spread throughout an entire organization. One, two, maybe three cars hold up the mantle for a car owner who mixes happiness with angst at another team turning into mush before his eyes.

That vision pretty much describes Rick Hendrick’s life as a car owner year in, year out. Never able to get all four cars into the 12-team Chase since it began in 2004, one of NASCAR’s greatest success stories has always been towing along at least one car in his stable that ultimately fails to make the grade.

Two of these drivers aren’t performing like the others. But does Rick Hendrick have the magic to put them back together again?

At least this year, the man’s decided to switch it up a bit. For once in his life, the seven-time champion car owner doesn’t have just one lone vehicle failing to meet expectations.

He’s got two.

Indeed, the Team Formerly Known As The Hendrick All-Stars finds itself at a crossroads four races into the season. It’s an organization that still prides itself on being the pinnacle of NASCAR success; but it’s also a four-car team that’s splitting apart into two very different directions.

We’ll get to the Bad News Bears of this group in a minute. But to understand how bad it is for two of the sport’s biggest stars to be on life support – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin – you’ve got to understand how the other half has got it so good. And on the “beauty” side of Hendrick, it’s an ugly truth both men have to face – life for their two other teammates couldn’t be better. Sitting in Hendrick’s better half is the two-car tandem of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the four-time champ and aspiring four-time champ who have spent years swapping places as the sport’s best. While Johnson holds the latest hardware, right now it’s Gordon’s turn to shine, with two runner-up finishes in three weeks enough to leave him winning in the most important category: Sprint Cup points. As I wrote not too long ago, it’s Gordon showing more focus and determination than any driver on the Cup circuit to date, out to prove that Johnson hasn’t knocked him off the perch of Hendrick’s No. 1 driver for good.

“I tell you right now, we’ve got the best team out there,” he said Sunday. “They’re showing it on pit road. They’re showing it in the confidence that they have, like Steve Letarte making calls and the way we’re communicating… and certainly those race cars.”

That attention to detail is shared by Johnson and his crew, so determined to maximize every advantage crew chief Chad Knaus came up with an “emergency” plan on Sunday to deal with a second NASCAR trainee in their pit box. Half the field wouldn’t have cared an extra set of eyes was walking around their car; for Knaus, it was an unnecessary distraction that needed to be dealt with in order for their team to save that tenth of a second and move one more step up the finishing order. 13th in the standings after just four races, everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before the No. 48 enters the top 12. Confidence, history, and the success of the team next door is all they need to push forward as we head towards the short track swing.

You’d think that rock hard self-esteem would be enough to spill over into all four Hendrick Chevrolets. But everyone knows the on-track relationship with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury is on a different type of roller coaster. Johnson and Knaus are the ones that leave you ready to get back in line and see just how it worked all over again; Junior and Eury just leave you queasy and looking for the nearest trash can.

“We are doing about as miserable as we can do without being too upset about it,” said Junior on Sunday after finishing 11th, his third run outside the top 10 in the first four races. Once again, Junior’s race was typical of the last 15 months with this team: great in the beginning, so-so in the middle, and downright awful in the end – right when it matters the most. Lucky to catch enough cautions and Lucky Dogs to stay on the lead lap, Junior was about a 25th-place car by race’s end as he spent much of the final 100 miles trying not to wreck. That is, if you don’t count his yelling over the radio at Eury a crash course in how not to interact with a crew chief.

“We struggled,” Junior admitted with the fatigue of a man who’s yet to land on his feet since spinning Brian Vickers in front of the field at Daytona last month. “This weekend off will be good for everybody.”

Well, not everybody. While Junior destresses, the speculation surrounding Eury will only intensify as the series prepares for the meat of its upcoming schedule. For as the pressure piles up in the No. 88 camp, someone’s going to have to take the fall for poor performance – and I’m guessing it’s not NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Eury firing rumors are already popping up; at one point, there was a bogus rumor spreading through the garage this weekend that he’d be gone as soon as yesterday afternoon. In reality, his actual leash will likely last a few months longer; but there’s no question the time for change at the No. 88 is close at hand. Earnhardt has spent 15 months toiling under the weight of Hendrick expectations, expecting this organization to provide him with everything he needs to be successful.

Instead, he’s learning the hard way that money doesn’t buy happiness. At the moment, Junior’s No. 88 has about $20 million more to work with in funding than the No. 71 of David Gilliland. But both have the same number of top 25 finishes – two – in a year where having third-tier status at Hendrick is getting thrown in Junior’s face far earlier than anyone could have expected. I guess in these tough economic times, no one likes to see so much money get wasted so badly for long.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “I look at my teammates and they are running better, we should run the way they run.”

Across the way, the No. 88 tries to look to their shopmates at the No. 5 for inspiration. Indeed, this was supposed to be the year new hire Mark Martin gave Earnhardt the guiding hand needed for him to succeed. At 50, Martin’s championship bid was supposed to be the story of the season, with Hendrick bending over backwards to give him the best equipment, the best crew, the best engines.

Too bad he forgot one thing; Lady Luck doesn’t take bribes.

That’s been the one bad estimate in Hendrick’s master plan, a thought that a change of scenery would take the monkey of innocent victim off Martin’s back. But this is a man who’s finished runner-up in the points four times when he could have easily won the championship twice. It’s a man who’s been on the short end of every controversial stick, a man who makes a living at finding ways to pull defeat straight out of the jaws of victory.

Sadly, you can’t throw money at a problem like that. And despite a pole at Atlanta, Martin’s season has been a rubber stamp on what he’ll be known for – would haves, could haves, and might have beens. Two failed engines, a blown right rear tire, a poor pit call – four top 10 performances were turned into four finishes so bad, a wreck at Bristol might force Martin to qualify for races on speed beginning at the end of March.

What a jarring contradiction for an organization possessing perhaps the speediest car on the track right now under the same roof.

“We haven’t reached our full potential yet,” said the point leader Gordon in a fit of excitement Sunday night. “We’re still gaining momentum.”

In the off week, the trick will be for Earnhardt and Martin to figure out where that’s coming from – before it’s too late.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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03/09/2009 02:16 AM

The 5 team shouldn’t change a thing they’re doing. They’ve had terrible luck and might just have to outlast the spell.
The 88 team is only 78 points away from 12th place in points so all is not lost yet.
But, as noted, the trend to lose the handle by midpoint of a race and not regain it until they unload the next week at a new track is foreboding.
What should Rick Hendrick do

03/09/2009 04:43 AM

The talent gap isn’t helping the #88 either. Gordon, JJ and Martin are all head and shoulders above Junior in the talent department.

03/09/2009 05:34 AM

Obviously DEI and Mrs. Earnhardt weren’t the problem after all . I’m not convinced that Tony Eury is either .

Bill B
03/09/2009 07:51 AM

I think you all need to chill out. 4 races does not a season make (or break).

03/09/2009 07:58 AM

With all due repect to Dale Jr. fans, he is NOT the talent his Dad was nor will he ever be. He is at best a middle of the pack driver with one exception, he does appear to excel at plate racing. They will fire Tony and then maybe Hendrick will learn that Junior is a hell of a nice guy who just can’t drive a race car!

Mike In NH
03/09/2009 08:41 AM

It’s way early to hit the panic button – anyone remember all the “What’s wrong with Jimmy Johnson?” talk at this time last year, and how did that turn out?

I find it interesting that the split is along shop lines – 24 and 48 share one shot, 88 and 5 the other. Maybe its time to find a way to put both shops together, or split the 24 and 48 up in hopes of some of that weekday skill rubbing off on the two also rans (yes, I know you run the risk of it working the other way around and having the bad karma rub off on the two good teams, but I can’t believe with how good those two teams are that that would happen).

03/09/2009 09:03 AM

I have to be one of the 88’s worst fans, i cheer for this kid all the time listen to the in car allrace long dreading when the car is going to go all to HELL, and it always does after 3/4 of the race. I just do not get it, what are they doing wrong, is it Eury not standing up to Jr.? Is it Jr. not giving him the correct feedback? When listening to every race they go one way and make the car better, then they try something else and make it worse, they never keep up with the cooling race track. I do not know i am not going to sit here and pretend to have the answers. I have never climbed behind the wheel of one of thoes JUNK NASCAR race cars. BTW I HATE THIS NEW CAR< the look is god awful it hardley ever puts on a good race and the teams have spent millions and millions in new cars and testing just to try and make this JUNK work. Ok i feel better i got that out. I feel Mark will get it going in the right direction but the up and downs of the 88 i do not have an answer. They really need to get off the POT and start giving us something good to talk about. I feel bad for Eury because i know just from listening it is not all his fault.


03/09/2009 09:06 AM

Hendrick had always has an “A” shop and a “B” shop. This is nothing new.

03/09/2009 09:35 AM

This 88 team is a joke. First, he is not, nor will he ever be his dad. Second, well, actually, that’s about all there is to say about him.

03/09/2009 10:30 AM

Mark will bounce back. And let’s face it, all he has to do is ride around in the top 12 until the final 10 races anyway. There’s nothing at all wrong with the team or driver besides bad luck. You’ve forgotten to mention that, in all four races, he was running in the top 10 when things broke or went wrong.

03/09/2009 11:07 AM

The first mistake folks make is mentioning Senior in the same sentence as Junior.

They are not the same and never will be, and no, Junior does not have and never had Senior’s talent.

With that said, does Junior have the talent to be a successful race car driver?


Can he drive this COT?

Not so much. So far.

Is Eury Jr. the problem?

Probably not, but one thing is for sure, it does not work with him and Junior.

So does a change need to be made?


Earnhardt has struggled for two reasons:

DEI started to slip technologically in the last half of the decade, and that hurt Junior competively, because he could drive that old car. Who couldn’t? It was a aerodynamic bullet and did not require a lot of talent to drive.

The COT is much more set-up dependent, and you have to be able to drive a loose race car to drive it successfully.

Junior absolutely despises a loose race car. And b*tches about it the whole race long.

No wonder Eury is thinking to himself “just shut the f*** up and drive the car”…..or tell me how to fix it!

Which Junior cannot do, because he is always in the process of becoming unglued and flustered in the race car. Immaturity some call it.

Which is why poor Junior cannot be consistent, or put together a good solid year, especially with any kind of adversity thrown his way.

That is the real difference between the 24,48 and the 88.

And folks, I am a Junior fan.

03/09/2009 12:03 PM

Is the Junior problem perception or reality? Outside of Jeff Gordon, no one else at Hendrick is performing very well. Johnson’s average finish in all four races is 18.25 where Junior’s average finish is 21.75. When you you average the three races where Junior didn’t blow a motor, Junior’s average finish is 16 whereas Johnson’s is 21.33. I am not suggesting that Junior is a better driver than Johnson, but their seasons so far are not that far apart. Yet, Junior is perceived to be doing horribly while Johnson is perceived to be off to a great start.

The good news is that Kurt Busch won on Sunday, and Carl Edwards lost. As long as Kyle and Carl lose, I’ll have a good week.

03/09/2009 12:54 PM

i keep saying the problem with the 88 is jr. he’s his own worst enemy. he is headstrong and not willing to listen to others. hendrick has a sports psychologist but will jr work with him — no…jr’s attitude is “i’ll tell him a thing or two”. jr is not mentally or physically in shape. even gordon has admitted this year that last year he let things slide. he’s back to being focused and working out to be in shape. it takes a lot out of you to drive 500 miles…mental toughness as well.

jr seems to always go on a rant on the radio. i would have thought by now that would have changed. eury jr always looked like a whipped dog cause whatever he does it’s never good enough for his cousin.

jr’s looking forward to off weekend after only 4 weeks of racing?? man, what will he do come the heat of the summer and what 17 weeks straight?!

and what hurts na$car (i can’t believe i’m saying that)is when jr gets take out of a race early on and is multiple laps down, the places empty out. dale jr will NEVER be the driver his father was. he’s just not focused, he hasn’t done without or had to race to feed himself. he’s not part of a team…he’s an individual who shows up to get in the car and drive. it’s a team sport, not individual sport. that has got to change, and until it does, the 88 will have one or two good runs in a season, and squeek into the chase.

03/09/2009 01:01 PM

I think Jr.‘s problem is that he is not driven. Due to his name, he had fame and fortune thrust upon him without having to work for it. He can party, throw temper tandrums and be a pain at times because he know he will be forgiven by NA$CAR and his fans. His excuse for a lack of success was lost when he moved to Hendrick.

03/09/2009 02:05 PM

I listened to Jr/Jr on the scanner and heard Dale Jr give more feedback than I have ever heard/good feedback. I think the problem is the pit crew. They are consistently slower than the other Hendricks teams.Jr fought a loose wheel for over 1/2 the race and that was probably an overtorqued lugnut problem. Neither of these problems were JR/.JR problems. I didn’t see his speeds falling off even with a loose wheel. He was still good enough to finish 11th. As far as the amount of money spent on his team. jr is running a lot better than Ryan Newman and that is a clone team of Hendricks. It’s a long season and I think Jr will be just fine and make the chase.

03/09/2009 02:10 PM

The problem is Tony Jr. He can build great races cars but as far as the in race adjustments he is terrible. He always has been. It’s not brain surgery to figure out he’s struggled since Pops left the box. Pops would tell him to shut his mouth and drive the car BUT he would make the right changes to the car to make it drive better. If you’re fast off the truck and then fade through the race till the end that means the CC is not making the right calls. Jr gives the feedback that is needed to fix the car it just needs to be fixed.

For all the smart people that keep saying that he’s not his father…good call. I don’t think anyone could have figured out that one on their own. Take a look at the record book, how many others are as good? Three, maybe four. Good call in letting the rest of us know though and repeating it daily.

Kahne Fan
03/09/2009 02:38 PM

it is so incredibly painful to listen to Junior interviewed, even basic english/grammar seem to be a bit difficult for him…

He’s only living off of Daddy’s name. He’s not proven a thing.

03/09/2009 06:50 PM

I tried to remain calm reading your article….I tried to remain unbiased and understand of where you could be coming from. But how could you possibly say such rotten things about Mark Martin? You talk as if he’s a has-been, washed up driver, and Rick Hendrick made a mistake hiring him. Engines blowing have NOTHING to do with him, that’s equipment failure. A right rear tire blowing, again, equipment failure for a man who practically never blows a tire.

Have you forgotten that up until this year the 5(25) car has always been the runt of the Hendrick stable? Mark could have easily had top ten finishes in all four of the season’s first 4 four races, if not for acts beyond his control. I know that Mark will prove you wrong by the end of the year, hopefully you’ll be writing a different article then. As for Junior, I think he’s proving that he rode in here on the coat-tails of his father, and if not for his name/connections/racing history, he wouldn’t be here at all.

03/09/2009 06:51 PM

Let’s not forget how well martin ran the last two years in what could be considered sub-par equipment. Six outside poles last year and multiple chances at victory, all while being part time. Please refrain from grouping Martin in with Junior, the two are anything but the same.

03/09/2009 07:00 PM

JR. is anice kid but lets face it he’s all hype and short on talent.The Bush championships he won were in superior equipment.He will never be a Sprint Cup champion.I just wonder how much longer JR. nation is going to keep cheering for a driver that dosent win?

03/09/2009 08:27 PM

Mr. Hendrick needs to look internally at how he houses the teams. If he wants to spread some of that championship magic around, you can’t have the two champs sharing the same facility. Send the 5 over to be with the 24, and the 88 over to be with the 48. Let Eury learn from Knaus.

Don’t know how you fix the Martin bad luck issue, a witch doctor maybe? Maybe just being around Gordon would bring him some luck.

Problem is, Mr. Hendrick is more interested in keeping Johnson and Gordon winning then he is in Junior and Martin, and that’s why he won’t make that move. He liked Junior and Martin because they are cash register’s. Mr. Hendrick didn’t get where he is by being a kindly old man, he’s a shrewd operator, and he know’s times are tough. Junior is a gold mine, and all the old timers just love Martin.

03/09/2009 08:29 PM

Great idea, split up the 24 & 48. Year after years it’s those same 2 guys at Hendrick. I can’t believe any impotant info from them is shared with anybody else.

03/09/2009 08:49 PM

Ive always thought the same about Eury. I tell people hes a great starting pitcher and that you always know in the end that Jr will be going backwards insted of going forward. I think in due time he could realize that the grass would be greener if Alan Gustafson was on top of the box

03/09/2009 09:45 PM

Joonur may, or may not win a championship. My guess is that he won’t, but as long as he can,(& he can)sell tons of stuff. He’ll have a home at HMS, as long as he wants it. As for MM, don’t give up on him making the chase. He’s one of the best points strokers, who ever climbed into a race car. He won’t win a championship, but he could very well make the chase.

03/11/2009 04:34 PM

tony jr is a man who has risen to his level of incompetency. He is a great leader in the shop, but he doesn’t have that touch needed to run the strategy during the race. He seems to get behind the adjustments during the race, calling for too little, too late…or too much. Put him back in his proven element, at the shop, and get Pops back in Cup. dale Jr’ll be takin’ trophies in no time.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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