NASCAR Notebook - Thursday
Thursday morning's announcement that said Tony Eury Jr was going to be replaced as the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr's #88 team came as no surprise to anyone. We all knew this move was coming and it was just a matter of when team owner Rick Hendrick was going to make the change.
The official announcement states that Lance McGrew will be the interim crew chief and will take over Earnhardt's pit box effective June 6th at the Pocono race. Team Manager Brian Whitesell will lead the team during next Sunday's race at Dover.
From a prepared statement team owner Rick Hendrick said "our performance hasn't been where it should be. It's impossible to pin that on any one factor, but a change is the right decision at this point. We have a plan in place and we're going to move forward with it."
Hendrick's comment on the performance levels of the #88 team is actually a major understatement. Earnhardt's best finish, in the past six races, is a 20th. The decision to replace Eury likely came following an extremely poor outing in last weekend's Coca-Cola 600, at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, where the team finished an extremely disappointing 40th two laps down. The handling of the car was so bad that it was described as being "evil loose."
Racing is about performance and the numbers that are compiled with it. At the beginning of the 2009 season Earnhardt and company was expected to be major players in the NASCAR championship picture. But the numbers associated with the #88 team so far has been dismal at best.
In 12 Sprint Cup starts Earnhardt is ranked 19th in the driver's points standings. So far this the team in win less with only one top five finish and three top ten finishes. Earnhardt has only led a total of 90 laps so far. In those 12 starts the team has an average starting position of 23d with an average finish ratio of 21.333.
These are not the numbers expected from such a high profile team. These not the numbers expected from a would be champion. They're certainly not the numbers expected from Hendrick Motorsports which is one of most potent racing organizations in the world.
It's not what the sponsors expected either and that was another important factor Hendrick had to consider. The primary sponsorship from the National Guard and the Pepsi Corporation, manufacturers of the Mountain Dew and Amp Energy brands on the car, were reported to be $28 million per year. Factor in the revenue provided by associate sponsors and you have a team that generates a massive amount of revenue from sponsors who are looking for results and not excuses.
Throughout the current season it was becoming increasingly evident that Earnhardt and Eury were no longer reading from the same page. There were a lot of arguments regarding what adjustments the car needed during the course of a race. This was especially true during yellow caution laps prior to a pit stop. There were also several miscues on pit road that raised the level of frustration even higher. All of this was not speculation. There was plenty of video tape to support the stories that were being reported. It was also being heard by the media and the fans on race scanners and computer programs. More importantly, Rick Hendrick was listening and quickly realized that the communication between his driver and crew chief just wasn't there any more.
This of course is not the first time we've witnessed this situation. That lack of communication, along with the in car radio fighting, raised its ugly head a few years ago when Earnhardt and Eury were together during the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated-Budweiser Chevy days. That too resulted in a separation followed by a reunion a year later. In 2007 when Earnhardt announced that he was moving to Hendrick Motorsports and was bringing his cousin/crew chief with him a lot of observers wondered if this was a good idea. Apparently it wasn't.
However Eury will emerge from all of this just fine. It was also announced Thursday morning that he will be playing a key role in the Hendrick Motorsports Research and Development Department. That's already being heralded as a good move for him. It will allow Eury to participate in groundbreaking innovations that will play a role in the future of the company.
In a prepared statement Eury said "I have mixed feelings and that's natural. But I enjoy working at Hendrick Motorsports and this is where I want to be. I'll do whatever I can to help all of our teams and will try to be part of another championship. I think a new challenge will be good."
"Tony and I talked through this last night," Hendrick said adding "I want him here, he wants to be here and he's going to be a big contributor to our future success. I have an unbelievable amount of respect for the job he's done and for the caliber of person that he is."
Now the focus shifts to Lance McGrew. Is he the solution that this team needs? The 41 year old Baton Rouge, Louisiana native certainly has the performance numbers in his professional background. McGrew is already a winning crew chief in all three of NASCAR's national touring series. One of his major career highlights was guiding driver Brian Vickers, and Hendrick Motorsports, to a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship in 2003. He has also won races with drivers Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Ricky Hendrick, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin. His most recent win came last February, at Daytona, when Tony Stewart drove a Hendrick car to victory in the Nationwide Series race.
McGrew already has some powerful backup from Hendrick personnel to help guide the #88 team. Team Manager Brian Whitesell and Team Engineer Tom Stewart will be joining him on the pit box to assist in race strategy. Also in this mix is the presence of Rex Stump, the Hendrick Motorsports Lead Chassis Engineer, who has been assigned to support McGrew on a full-time basis.
This is what Rick Hendrick calls a collective effort. "We're going to put our full resources toward improving the situation and winning races. It's going to be a collective effort involving all of our drivers, all of our crew chiefs and all of our engineers. Everyone in our company will be involved on some level", Hendrick said.
McGrew already has some on track experience with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last year McGrew was the crew chief for the three Nationwide Series events that Earnhardt participated in. Two of those events led to top five finishes.
But for this new collaboration to be successful the two principals are going to have to make quick work towards establishing good communication levels. The driver is going to have to be willing to listen to the input of the crew chief and trust that he's making the right decisions during a race. In turn, the crew chief is going to have to be firm with the driver and convince him that he has any given situation well covered.
Dale Earnhardt Jr is going to have to deal with a new level of scrutiny and pressure far beyond what he felt at the beginning of the season. If the expectation levels were high last February, they're going to sky high now. The media and the fans, known as the Junior Nation, will be watching closely to see what level of instant gratification comes from this new pairing.
Interestedly enough, at this particular point in time, Dale Earnhardt Jr has been extremely tight-lipped regarding this new major change to his race team. by Dave Grayson