Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hendrick's Fix Is A Good One

There's a reason why Rick Hendrick is widely recognized as one of the top team owners in the history of NASCAR.

Hendrick removed Tony Eury, Jr., as crewchief of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s National Guard/AMP Energy Drink #88 Chevrolet Thursday, after a dismal, 40th place showing in the Coca-Cola 600 dropped the team to 19th in the championship standings. The decision to make a change was a no-brainer. More difficult was the decision on what to do next.

Earnhardt is strong-willed to the point of stubbornness, and has displayed fierce loyalty to his now departed cousin/crewchief. The last time he was teamed with a crewchief not of his own choosing -- DEI's Pete Rondeau -- the partnership lasted only a few weeks before Rondeau walked away, reportedly unhappy with Earnhardt's communication skills and unwillingness to consider ideas that were not his own.

In an attempt to avoid a repeat performance, Hendrick has replaced Eury with a sort of crewchief-by-committee. Beginning next week, interim crewchief Lance McGrew, team manager Brian Whitesell, lead chassis engineer Rex Stump and engineer Tom Stewart will all play major roles in determining Earnhardt's chassis setups and race strategy. McGrew will fill the crewchief's role at least for now, with assistance from Whitesell. Stump will provide input on the nuts-and-bolts, while Stewart assists with race strategy.

It's an ingenious approach, for two reasons.

First, it insulates McGrew from the scrutiny associated with serving as crewchief for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. More important, it provides a "strength in numbers" approach to dealing with Earnhardt himself.

In the past, Eury's decisions have been subject to frequent second-guessing from the cockpit. With McGrew, Whitesell, Stump and Stewart all contributing their expertise, Earnhardt may have no choice but to do things their way.

Hendrick explained the move in a prepared statement, saying, "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.

"We're going to put our full resources toward improving the situation and winning races," said Hendrick. "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."

Hendrick has said repeatedly that he would not make a change simply for the sake of change. In that regard, he has proven to be as good as his word. Today's announcement lays the groundwork for a newer, stronger, less disfunctional #88 team; a team capable of fulfilling Earnhardt's promise as a driver and giving Hendrick Motorsports a fourth championship contender.

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