Earnhardt defends crew chief Ives in shaky final season

DOVER, Del. (AP) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long reigned as NASCAR's most popular driver. But too many of his fans have started complaining in 140-character bursts a most unpopular opinion for Earnhardt - that crew chief Greg Ives should take the blame for the No. 88's struggles this season.

Not so fast.

''We've had a difficult year and there's just been a little rumbling in the background from fans,'' Earnhardt said Tuesday. ''They just love to target the crew chief. Our struggles are no one individual's responsibility. I think me and my crew chief, we have such a very passionate fan base, very large fan base, it's a challenging position for anybody. I've seen that, with all the guys that I've worked with. They've all had to deal with criticism.''

Ives, in his third season with Earnhardt, was criticized over the weekend for his decision in the Brickyard 400 to send the No. 88 to the pits even though it was good on fuel before the end of the second stage. Had Earnhardt stayed out, he would have come off a restart inside the top five. Instead, he was 24th and soon wrecked out of the race when he connected with Trevor Bayne. Earnhardt's crew also struggled with lug nuts on one pit stop that cost him several spots in the field.

Earnhardt, who is retiring after the season, shut down criticism of the team on Twitter, where he has 2.1 million followers, writing, ''He never gave up on me. We're a tight group and will finish together.''

''Maybe Twitter ain't the place to be drawing attention to things like that,'' Earnhardt said. ''You just hear enough chatter over the course of a long period of time. It wasn't something that just happened that particular weekend. Sometimes you feel like you've got to stand up for your guys. At least let Greg know, it's not OK I guess, to be a fan, then dog the crew.''

Earnhardt's final season at Hendrick Motorsports has been more dud than dominant, and Indy was the fifth time this season he has crashed out of a race. Earnhardt has just four top-10 finishes and is 22nd in the standings - his worst full-season performance since 2009. He'll need to win one of the next six races to end his Cup career with any shot at racing in NASCAR's postseason and winning his first championship.

Earnhardt says he's healthy and isn't focused on his shift into the NBC Sports broadcast booth next season. Earnhardt said negotiations began after he decided to leave racing and continued for several months before the two sides agreed to the deal in the past few days.

''I think that's what they hired me for, was to be myself and give my point of view,'' he said.

And his point of view this week? Fans - and yes, the media, too - need to pump the breaks on pointing fingers in Earnhardt's woeful season.

''We've had some pretty difficult results and had a lot of opportunity to be frustrated and miserable,'' he said. ''But I don't want this season to be remembered by my crew chief, myself and my guys as a miserable, miserable time. The fans have an influence on that. They can definitely ease up a bit on Greg and realize that he's extremely talented. He's in that position for a reason.''

Earnhardt spoke at a Goodyear tire test at Dover International Speedway, answering questions for nearly a half-hour. Heis off this weekend to Pocono Raceway, where he swept two races in 2014. There's little time to worry about the Brickyard.

''I've had a lot of bad finishes in my career,'' he said. ''But I can't remember anything about those and I probably won't remember much about this season, a couple years.''

But the 42-year-old Earnhardt is excited about his future at NBC. The agreement with NBCUniversal announced Monday will allow Earnhardt to pursue ''a wide range of opportunities in the company's media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas'' including football and perhaps even the Olympics.

He will watch next season with a headset as Ives tries to steer replacement Alex Bowman to better days in the 88. Asked if he had any second thoughts about retirement, Earnhardt was quick to say no. He simply wants to get back to racing.

''It's easy to focus on the race; it's hard to focus on the distractions,'' he said. ''There are responsibilities outside the car. There's a lot more this year. It seems like they've always kind of escalated each year. It's harder to focus on that stuff. That stuff does deserve some time and energy. It's a little harder to do that and do it right because you want to make sure the racing is getting everything it needs.''

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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