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Making excuses for NASCAR's biggest star

by Dave Grayson
Friday, October 23, 2009

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The worst driver on the best team in NASCAR, there's no more excuses for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s lack of performance
Speaking strictly in the hypothetical, let's say Dale Earnhardt Jr gets a bad case of the hiccups. It's a relatively simple physical malady that we all endure from time to time. But when you're NASCAR's most popular driver and a national celebrity a simple hiccup can easily become a larger than life issue.

For example: somewhere between HIC and CUP this process is going to be captured on both video and audio tape. It will next become the source of major TV and radio sound bites for at least a week minimum. The hiccups will next be analyzed in great length by a round table panel of experts on both the Speed Channel and ESPN2. Some of the finest motorsports writers in the country will tell us that "it's no wonder he has hiccups, look at the season he's having."

Wait a minute, we haven't arrived at the insane part yet.

That would be the contributors to NASCAR themed talk radio programs, racing blogs and those who "twitter", (or in some cases twits). From these sources we will start hearing reports that says Earnhardt has been diagnosed with a major medical condition that will force his retirement from racing.

As silly as all of this sounds, it's exactly how easy any aspect of this driver's life can get greatly embellished. I suppose that traditional clich├ęs such as "the price of fame" or "living life in a fish bowl" applies here.

Obviously there are some serious concerns regarding Dale Earnhardt Jr and his #88 Hendrick Motorsports team. I'm not going to spend time here reviewing the team's 2009 statistics. We've heard them time and again and they will be repeated throughout the upcoming weekend.

But when a seemingly easy going driver, who rarely shares his inner feelings during interviews, lashes out with comments such as "I'm about at the end of my rope-I feel like I don't have control" then it's time for the team, and its owner, to seriously take a look at the situation and find a solution.

Unfortunately, a big part of this problem is the element of luck which can never be controlled. The transmission failure, last week at the Lowes Motor Speedway, is exactly that: bad luck. The same goes for the loss of a top ten finish, at the Auto Club Speedway, the week when a cut tire triggered a crash within the final 16 laps of the race. Again, you just control that.

However there also seems to be a communication problem between the driver and the crew chief. That can be fixed.

Earnhardt's candid in car radio conversations with former crew chief, and cousin, Tony Eury Jr were legendary. The arguments over what the race car needed were overheard by millions of fans from live television broadcasts, personal track scanners and on home computers via NASCAR's "Track Pass". At times it sounded like two guys fighting over the same girlfriend. There were even times when their radio transmissions were actually more entertaining than the race itself.

While that vocal intensity hasn't quite hit the relationship between the driver and his new crew chief, Lance McGrew, there are indications that sometimes they're not communicating at the same level. From the outside looking in one could get the impression that the driver needs to do a little less arguing with his crew chief and a little more listening.

That's where team owner Rick Hendrick needs to place his focus and input. In his own words Hendrick has a philosophy that says "if I can fix something rather than start over then I'd rather fix it." At this particular point in time it appears that Hendrick is leaning towards keeping Earnhardt and McGrew together while concentrating on improving the communication levels.

It could turn out that the solution to this problem is that simple. Hendrick has exceptionally high people skills and an extraordinary ability to communicate We need to remember that the superstar combination of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus weren't exactly on the same page during their first season together. Rick Hendrick made quick work of fixing that.

Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that Rick Hendrick has a quick fix cure for the hiccups.

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