On one end of the Hendrick garage sits the sport's corporate king,
On the other side, sitting in the greasy spoon section we have the Goofus to Johnson's Gallant, the blue-collar, beer-guzzling
It wasn't supposed to be this way, Johnson's rock steady presence combining with the rest of Hendrick Motorsports to give racing's version of royalty a support system on which to ascend to the throne. But as we head toward the end of another hopeless season, the bigger question to ask about Earnhardt is when both sides realize the current philosophy is destined for a disastrous end to this mediocre monarchy.
For now, in the face of a stats sheet where Junior's 19th in points, armed with just 68 laps led -- on pace for his lowest total since he entered the Cup Series full-time in 2000 -- the company line continues to be, "onward and upward" in the face of catastrophic results. Just last week, Mr. Hendrick himself reiterated that not only would there be no major tweaks to the No. 88 team this year, he expected Dale Jr.'s off-again, on-again fling with crew chief
"If you miss the Chase and you just decide you're gonna change something just to be changing it, I think that's a mistake," Hendrick claimed last Saturday. "I've never tried to do that."
It's an interesting comment, especially since HMS teammate
"I keep my options open," he said. "But at the same time if the driver and the crew chief are getting along and working together and they're trying, that's all I can ask for."
On a fifth-grade playground type of level, that's acceptable. Yet considering the AMP / National Guard sponsorship deal is rumored to be in the richest of any in the sport -- I've heard numbers that go as high as $40 million -- you wonder if everyone directly associated with Junior Nation, from the boardroom to the body men working overtime on building cars that fail, are happy with a Gold Star pin and a round of applause for NASCAR's highest-paid individual athlete. Now armed with the same number of races as predecessor
Even during Eury's 12-race stretch in 2009 that got him fired, Junior still led more laps in as many races (90, 4) than he has all this year with McGrew (68, 4). At the same time, Johnson is busy winning championships while Jeff Gordon and
That led to additional moves over the offseason, including Martin's main engineer
So what, pray tell, is there to indicate no changes are necessary? For those who haven't, I implore you to listen to one of Earnhardt-McGrew's radio transmissions over the course of a 500-mile race. It's truly the definition of dysfunctional love-hate, an argument nearly every weekend diffused by the same type of post-race comment: "This is the type of relationship we have."
"I have a hard time biting my tongue and always want the last word and all that good stuff," said Earnhardt Jr., who is mild-mannered outside of the car. "And I'm in 120-degree hot car and at the moment I feel like I'm doing the majority of the work. And right or wrong, I'm just saying that's how you feel, whether it's right or wrong."
But does swearing in frustration at McGrew's constant changes -- adjustments which often times send the car backward late in races -- prove the answer as they drown consistently in their own poor performances? Such epithets would scream Dr. Phil's couch and a parting of the ways almost instantaneously. But it's not so easy in the world of Junior, the blue-collar man in a corporate environment who seems to be increasingly misunderstood by those who employ him.
"Half the stuff Junior says ... to go from Mark Martin, who is early to everything, first one to speak, so involved, to Junior on the opposite end," said Johnson back in April. "You go from one extreme to the other. You know what's coming out of Martin's and you don't know what's coming out of Earnhardt's mouth."
"He's raw, unrefined, which appeals to his fans," said Mark Martin in the
In the early, most successful years, Earnhardt was paired with a second father in
But we also haven't seen that clicking chemistry since, Hendrick's detail-oriented philosophies eventually weeding out the old processes, wearing down Eury and failing to catch on with a driver who'd rather go tailgating than tear it up at the gym or learn to file TPS report-like feedback over the radio. In his team's defense, you can't blame them; why change what works when Johnson has four titles sitting on his mantle? Clearly, as time went on, there seemed to be a growing impatience that Earnhardt isn't adapting to the rigors of Hendrick -- and not vice versa. So it goes, Hendrick's increasing push to mold Earnhardt after their philosophies failing in the face of their logic.
"In the end, a person has to decide whether they're committed to something or not," said
In many ways, the clock is ticking for both Earnhardt and NASCAR. There are signs of chinks in the armor of the man's seemingly unlimited popularity; just a few months back, a Pepsi Charity vote saw Johnson, not Earnhardt, garner the most votes to win a $100,000 grant the latter would typically walk away with by forfeit. He's been all but invisible on television in recent weeks, the No. 88 fading into the background with just one top-15 finish since Daytona, once again leaving new fans with neither results nor enough airtime to grasp onto Junior Nation. Sure, he did a cool little appearance racing
Some have said it's time for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports, yet just voicing the concept is a virtual impossibility. The five-year contract runs through the end of 2012, and in a sponsor-crunch world where even Jeff Gordon is still locking down a primary backer for next season don't doubt that AMP/National Guard contract continues to feed a bunch of mouths at the Hendrick table. So without a pink slip as an option, you'd think the car owner would have to eventually cave and make more changes ... right? Ten races would be plenty of time to throw another Letarte-type figure in there, see if it works and if the chemistry sparks a sudden resurgence?
The sad truth is that might not happen, either. Both Johnson and Gordon have another chance to bring a championship home to a system that clearly isn't broken. When there's one rotten egg, you don't throw out the whole bunch; it's not good business sense. As long as AMP and National Guard keep sending their checks, success at HMS is and will never be tied to where the No. 88 finishes each week. The organization had one of its most successful seasons without Junior's help, leaving them unwilling to cater to a man that's become little more than a financial investor lending a hand.
So what's left is an unrelenting, increasing pressure on Earnhardt to change, but that's like telling a farmer to put on a suit, head to Wall Street and snatch up a new 9 to 5 job as a corporate drone. You can make a movie from that script, but in real life change is but an impossible dream. And so we're left with a stalemate, a sad story to what could have been a fruitful partnership together at Hendrick. All we know is no changes will clearly lead to no answers; and the longer Earnhardt goes stuck in this slump, the more you wonder if his career will wind up in the trash can by the end of his five-year tenure as well.