For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November….
Today’s Season Preview Topic: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming off the worst year of his career, but kept Lance McGrew as his crew chief. Was that the right move, and was McGrew’s bold prediction of making the Chase the right thing for a man whose struggled with confidence since moving over to Hendrick?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: First off, this year is make-or-break for Earnhardt. Even though he’s signed through 2012, year three of the Hendrick experiment has to prove fruitful for him to consider sticking with the status quo. So with so much pressure already on him this season, the last thing he needs is to walk into inflated expectations.
Whoops! Guess Lance shouldn’t have opened his mouth.
Now, McGrew’s “Chase or bust” prediction for the No. 88 isn’t exactly out of the ordinary in sports. How often do we see underdogs make predictions about an upset when they feel they’re being snubbed? I just think in this case, you don’t start throwing punches until your fighter’s ready to rumble. Why start boasting like a heavyweight promoter when Earnhardt’s number one problem throughout 2009 was self-confidence? He ended the season a broken man, saddled with more bad luck in a year than most drivers see in a lifetime. Struggling through mental mistakes even rookies don’t make, he was simply fighting to make it through to Homestead in November, overwhelmed by the stress of failing on a team whose other drivers finished 1-2-3 in points.
So after an all-too-short offseason, where Junior was saddled with the task of rebuilding his self-esteem and starting from scratch, the response by his crew chief is… turn up the heat? Keep in mind just one person came from outside the top 20 in points this season to make the Chase (Juan Pablo Montoya). It’s very where that Rome gets built in a day… so why push the issue with someone still in a fragile state of recovery? It just doesn’t make sense to me. And now, you’ve got Earnhardt himself talking about how it’s a failure if he doesn’t win multiple races this season… I see it all as an inflatable balloon that has all the classic signs of popping at the first sign of trouble. And it didn’t have to be like that …
Vito Pugliese, Voice Of Vito (Wednesdays): Much has been made of Earnhardt Jr. retaining interim crew chief McGrew for the 2010 season. One of the few signal callers for the now not-so-Little E (he turns 36 this year) not named Eury during the course of his 10-year career, McGrew set the bar even higher for himself by calling his shot and saying the No. 88 team will qualify for the Chase this year. For a team that managed to Barney Fife themselves all season long in 2009, it is a bold prediction indeed. After all, finishing 25th in points with a pair of top fives is not exactly cause for confidence. However, as the face of NASCAR, the sport’s most popular driver, and a last name that’s synonymous with success, there really is no other option. Let’s face it; if your teammates finish 1-2-3 and combine for 13 wins, sliding into 12th place in points isn’t too much to ask.
In a sense, the pressure is off McGrew. If he succeeds and brings Junior a couple of wins and gets him back into Chase contention – and some may say his head and heart back in the game – he will be celebrated as a savior amongst the Junior Nation. If he fails and Dale Jr. has another miserable season, which sees Earnhardt Jr. revert back to the catatonic state that was evident as 2009 wore on, it may eliminate the crew chief as the variable for the continued struggles of the No. 88 car. Personally, I believe that Earnhardt Jr. is still every bit as competitive and competent as the one who captured six victories in 2004 and was in contention for a title as late as 2006. These have been some lean years for Little E, but he only need to look across the shop to his teammate Mark Martin, who has proven that right combination of crew chief, car, and driver can produce results at any age.
Jared Turner, Turner’s Take (Tuesdays): What is McGrew supposed to do: Predict that Earnhardt Jr. WON’T make the Chase? Last time I checked, you can’t fault a guy for being outwardly optimistic, even if he knows deep down inside that the cards are stacked against him. Wrecks, timing, a lack of experience working together and plain bad racing luck prevented the duo from showing their full hand in 2009. Don’t be surprised if Earnhardt Jr. has a strong but not dominant 2010, and McGrew is retained for the last two years of Earnhardt Jr.’s contract at Hendrick.
Kurt Smith, Happy Hour (Fridays): One thing I know after watching years of racing is that it’s bad to make predictions. Drivers and crew chiefs almost never say “we’re gonna win today,” no matter how confident they are, because they know it’s not likely to happen. To predict that a driver will make the playoffs is even more risky, especially after the year Junior just had.
Maybe the prediction was meant to lift Junior’s confidence, or to motivate him to live up to a goal. But Junior’s a professional. He shouldn’t need that.
Now, my prediction: McGrew is being too bold. I say Junior gets better this year only because he can’t do much worse, but title contention? No. And it’s mostly because he needs to get his head in the game. Missing your pit box with this car is deadly, and he did it three times last season. Figure around 14th when the dust clears. Maybe a win.
Danny Peters, The Yellow Stripe (Tuesdays): The stats may prove Junior was marginally less successful with McGrew, but I can’t see how it would have helped the No. 88 wheelman to make another change at the head-wrench position. And, frankly, if McGrew predicted anything other than making the Chase, I’d be disappointed. If the crew chief doesn’t have faith in his driver, you may as well give up before you begin.
Mike Lovecchio, Blog Moderator: Things certainly can’t get any worse for the No. 88 team, and keeping McGrew may be the decision that turns it around. His Chase prediction will not put any added pressure on Earnhardt, and in fact may show the oft-defeated driver that the team has confidence in a rebound. In fact, I expect the No. 88 team to unload at Daytona, come out like gangbusters and have an excellent shot at winning the 500. The month of February will be critical for them in instilling the confidence needed to compete and win in the Cup series.
Bryan Davis Keith, Nuts for Nationwide (Fridays): Keeping McGrew was not the right call, and it will not mean the Chase for Junior. I’m still convinced that Junior is one of the more talented drivers out there, but he lacks focus. There is a need for a crew chief that’s going to kick him in the ass, and McGrew is not that guy. The crew chief that guy needs is someone that he’s going to be almost angry working with.
Doug Turnbull, Hot/Not (Tuesdays): Yes… and yes. Multiple reports from the last week indicate that Earnhardt has a bounce back in his step that may have been missing since before his nasty departure from DEI. With the addition of some personnel from Martin’s No. 5 team and a renewed synergy between the No. 88 and No. 5 race shop, the AMP Energy team will have a much better year. Earnhardt says he will be disappointed with less than three wins, and he believes McGrew is the guy that will get him to it. If it does happen, his success will be more of an answer to the ratings and attendance problems than anything else.
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): I’ve heard no one present an airtight case for the perfect fit to lead the No. 88 team (and more importantly, its driver). Tony Eury Sr. doesn’t want it; Ray Evernham doesn’t, either. If Rick Hendrick had identified the individual, he would have hired him by now: it’s that simple. So McGrew is the guy (by default?) and should help this bunch and its driver rebound, somewhat, from a disastrous 2009.
In that vein, what does McGrew have to lose in expressing confidence in his driver in predicting a Chase berth? The performance can’t get any worse, and we’ll have long forgotten about his prognostication come September, anyways.
Tony Lumbis, Scott Speed Driver Diary (Fridays): First off, I do think it was the right move to keep McGrew. No matter what industry one works in, the adage is almost always true – it’s challenging to work with family. One of Junior’s problems over the past few seasons is that the family and crew chief relationship between both he and Tony Eury Jr. would too often blend together on race day, impeding communication. Once McGrew came on board, he did show signs of success with Junior late in the season – it was just marred by bad luck. Consistency on top of the pit box will benefit the driver of the No. 88 in 2010.
And McGrew’s prediction really isn’t going all that far out on a limb. After all, the driver did make the Chase just two years ago with the very same team. Also, it appears that Hendrick has made more changes to improve this team than in any previous offseason. Don’t forget that this was the former No. 25 team, which was constantly the “red-headed stepchild” of Hendrick Motorsports. If McGrew, a longtime employee of the organization, feels that confident about his chances, than he probably believes that the efforts he is seeing this offseason to improve the car are better than ever before.
And one more, for good measure…
Toni Montgomery, Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary (Fridays): Give McGrew a chance. Performance did pick up once the car chassis and setups became more “his” towards the end of the year, but at that point the team got nailed with some of the worst luck ever. And McGrew’s prediction might be a brilliant move. One of the things Junior needs more than anything is someone to believe in him and demonstrate their faith that he can contend – which is what McGrew is trying to do.