Monday, September 15, 2008

Hendrick Must Stop The Insanity

Just past the 200-lap mark in yesterday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was not a happy camper. A five-second lead had disappeared due to a bad set of tires, dropping his National Guard/AMP Energy Drink Chevrolet back through the field; the latest in a season-long series of late-race fades.

As has often been the case this season, Earnhardt vented his frustrations over his in-car radio, placing the blame squarely on his team and his crewchief, Tony Eury, Jr.

"We need a security guard over there watching those son-of-a-bitches,” snapped Earnhardt. “I can't figure out why we keep f-ing- up in the middle of all these races. Every f-ing time.”

Earnhardt’s blow-up triggered what has been a common response in recent weeks, with team owner Rick Hendrick stepping in to quell the feud. "You've got a great car right now,” said Hendrick. “Just take it easy."

The conversation that ensued illustrates the frustration Earnhardt clearly feels with his team, and how unhappy Hendrick is with his superstar driver’s complaints.

Earnhardt: "This is f-ing bulls---."

Hendrick: "You got a bad set of tires. It happens."

Earnhardt: "I need to find another series that runs half-distance races."

Hendrick: "You can do this. Talk to everybody about what the car is doing. We can make the right adjustments."

Earnhardt: "I'm pissed off. Sometimes you go your fastest when you're pissed off. So we'll see."

Hendrick: "Take it out on those guys in front of you."

After the race – with Earnhardt rebounding to post a solid, fifth-place finish -- Hendrick talked about the volatile relationship between Earnhardt and Eury. "They're like brothers,” he said. “They can fuss and say things, but when you've got millions of people listening … Tony gets some unfair (criticism).”

Hendrick said he believes it’s time for Earnhardt to spend less time venting about his on-track problems, and more time discussing solutions.

"If he doesn't want Tony to go anywhere -- if he's put a stake in the ground that he wants Tony Eury Jr. -- then he needs to treat him a little better on the radio."

Hendrick said he believes Earnhardt’s hair-trigger temper damages his ability to communicate with his team, adding, "I've had the benefit of listening to a lot of drivers over a number of years. To my knowledge, I've never had (a driver) that gave us good information when he's on the chip."

The situation between Earnhardt and Eury is not unique. One week ago, Tony Stewart lashed out at crewchief Greg Zipadelli and his Home Depot team in a similar fashion, after a balky final pit stop cost them the lead (and possibly the win) at Richmond. Within Hendrick’s own camp, Jimmie Johnson and crewchief Chad Knaus endured a rocky early relationship before a “come to Jesus meeting” with the boss convinced them to put their individual interests aside and begin working together as a team.

"I think they can be better," said Hendrick of his Earnhardt/Eury combo. “I know Tony will help him more if he's calmer when he's giving information. When you say, 'I'm so loose, I'm so loose,' you've got to talk about your drive off and your entry, so you know if you fix one you're going to hurt something else."

Earnhardt clearly enjoys venting his emotions in the racecar, believing that it motivates him to post faster lap times. But while admitting being too hard on Eury at times, NASCAR’s most popular driver shows no willingness to change.

If Junior won’t mend his ways voluntarily, Hendrick will have to force a change, reining-in Earnhardt’s temper and demanding that he work more efficiently – and less critically -- with his team. It is a job the longtime NASCAR team owner seems willing to undertake.

"It is frustrating," Hendrick said. "I don't think he realizes how strong he comes across. He's either going to wear me out, or I'm going to wear him out."

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