published Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Young: Hendrick’s finally forced to fix Earnhardt situation

Rick Hendrick finally pulled the trigger, and now we’ll get to see just how proficient the ultra-successful owner/businessman is at crisis management.

In putting the dysfunctional pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. out of its collective misery, Hendrick is really doing the only thing he can. I mean, you can’t fire the driver, can you? At least, you can’t fire THIS driver, who sells more merchandise in a year than most drivers will in a decade.

Hendrick is a patient man, but what he witnessed over the weekend in Charlotte was enough to make him finally realize that this ship isn’t getting righted with Eury Jr. at the helm. It wasn’t just the 40th-place finish in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 on Monday, it was also the team’s general lack of competitiveness over the two weeks the Sprint Cup teams were in Charlotte.

Lance McGrew will take over as interim crew chief beginning next week at Pocono after Brian Whitesell puts the team through its paces today in Dover. McGrew, 41, won the Nationwide Series championship with driver Brian Vickers and combined with Vickers to win the Sprint Cup race at Talladega in 2006.

He has won races in all three of NASCAR’s major divisions and has worked with Earnhardt three times in the Nationwide Series, getting two top-10s and a 15th-place finish.

“We’re going to put our full resources toward improving the situation and winning races,” Hendrick said. “It’s going to be a collective effort that includes all of our drivers, all of our crew chiefs and all of our engineers. Everyone in our company will be involved on some level.”

Whitesell, a key engineer, and Rex Stump, the organization’s lead chassis engineer, have been assigned to the 88 permanently and will give McGrew added experience to lean on.

And he’ll need it. Earnhardt has just three top-10 finishes this season and six finishes of 27th or worse. After a great start at Hendrick by winning the Budweiser Shootout and one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races, the bottom has fallen out. Despite getting a win last year on a fuel mileage gamble and reaching the Chase, the 88 has rarely been consistently competitive.

Making matters worse this year has been the rejuvenation of the 5 team with veteran driver Mark Martin. While three-time champ Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have been their usual strong selves, Martin has won twice and is now in position to make a run at a title in a car that has had very little success. Meanwhile, Junior and Junior have gotten worse as the season has progressed.

“Right now, we’ve got one boat that’s got a hole in it and we’ve got to fix it,” Hendrick said of the move. It seemed the harder we pushed, the more it unraveled. “We need a new reason to get up and go to the track each morning, and the chemistry had broken down between them to the point where we just needed a fresh start.”

As alarming as the results have been, the race-day communication issues between Earnhardt and Eury have been nearly as troubling. There have been numerous pit road mistakes and countless adolescent exchanges between the two.

Hendrick, who stresses professionalism in all his employees, has been concerned with the relationship for over a year. He made it clear earlier this season that the two needed to clean up their act and stop snipping at each other.

The question now is, will Junior let his new crew chief and his improved team do their jobs? It’s not as if the driver overrides decisions made on pit road. It’s just that, when things don’t work out, he makes things worse by blaming others and that has a serious detrimental affect on the team.

That’s not saying the team needs a cheerleader. What it needs is a driver who can give good feedback on what his car is doing and then let the crew do its job. All he has to do is look around the Hendrick garage for a role model.

Martin, despite being one of the more intelligent, experienced drivers on the circuit, not only lets his crew chief make the big calls, he praises his team at every opportunity and gives them all the credit when the car runs well.

Earnhardt wants to win as much as any driver in NASCAR, maybe too much, and he carries the weight of the sport on his shoulders as its most popular marketing tool. Maybe this move will allow him to trust his team more and relax a bit. If he does, the guess is this may turn out to be one of the most important seasons of his career.

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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