Sunday, May 2, 2010

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It has been nearly one year since Lance McGrew replaced Tony Eury Jr. as crew chief for the No. 88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On one hand, some critics might say that the Earnhardt-McGrew combination has not succeeded, pointing to a number of factors, including Junior's 25th-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings last season, a career low. They also may point out that Junior is going on nearly two years since he last reached victory lane.

On the other hand, some fans feel the combination is indeed working, the stats notwithstanding. Junior has become more mature, better at conveying technical information to McGrew over the team radio on how the car is handling, and is not as confrontational over the radio with McGrew as he was with Eury Jr.

I find myself agreeing with the latter group. Even though Junior still hasn't reached victory lane and he's currently 13th in the Sprint Cup standings heading into this Saturday's race at Darlington (he dropped five places, from eighth to 13th, after finishing a dismal 32nd at Richmond on Saturday night), I still hold to my prediction that he not only will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, but could very well wind up finishing in the top-five if things start going better for himself and McGrew.

And that's where the rub is. Let's face it, things have not gone very well for the most part for Dale Jr. of late. You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that has suffered more misfortune and bad luck than the No. 88 team. The key is for Junior and McGrew to hopefully, finally, turn that misfortune and bad luck around and convert it into good fortune and good luck.

Of course, that's easier said than done.

Still, I feel that turnaround not only is inevitable, I think it could come as soon as Darlington. And if not then, I predict that Junior will reach victory lane at least once – and possibly more – by Daytona in early July.

I raised this very topic Sunday during my show on Sirius NASCAR Radio, and it brought out numerous callers – the majority being card-carrying members of the Junior Nation, of course. They, too, can sense it, feel it, know it's coming: that Junior is perhaps just one good pit stop away from reaching victory lane.

When – not if – that happens, it could very well wind up being the most talked about win of any driver in recent memory. It'll be great for the team, the Hendrick Motorsports organization as a whole and NASCAR, as well.

Sure, when Earnhardt won at Michigan in 2008, there was a lot of talk afterward that he was going to go on a real tear, that the momentum generated from his first win in 76 starts would go far.

Unfortunately, that never happened. And now, as he closes in on 70 more starts without a win since that Michigan triumph, Dale Jr. finds himself in a similar position. Only the eventual outcome is going to be much different than what happened following the win at Michigan two years ago, I predict.

Nothing against Tony Eury Jr., but he made one crucial mistake in his tenure as his cousin's crew chief: he let Dale run the show. No team is going to excel if the driver runs the show; it has to be a team effort, with the crew chief calling the strategy and pit calls, and the driver giving good feedback on how the car is performing, while also driving to the best of his ability and talent.

Eury Jr. was too laid-back. McGrew is much more business-like, has far improved communication with his driver and has also helped show Dale Jr. just how important his feedback is, not to mention teaching Dale Jr. what to look for or to relate over the radio.

That business-like attitude displayed by McGrew has definitely rubbed off on Earnhardt. And that's a good thing, something that he probably should have displayed three or four years ago.

Soon to be 36 years old, the years and seasons are quickly passing Dale Jr. by. He needs to continue listening to McGrew's suggestions, respect his leadership and do his part as the driver to help give McGrew all the information he can to make educated and gutsy pit calls and strategy.

I think we can all pretty much put to rest that Dale Jr. will ever be as good or successful as his late father. The reality is that's just not going to happen – or even come close.

But with McGrew as his crew chief, Junior has a chance to finally showcase the ability and talent he's always had, but never had the right person to pull it out of him – at least, not until he and McGrew became linked in the marriage arranged by team owner Rick Hendrick.

Which takes me back to my earlier point: the tools, parts and personnel are all in place for Junior to have success. Likewise, McGrew is the right man for the job.

All they need is for some of that misfortune and bad luck that has hung around them like a cheap suit to finally dissipate and be replaced by good fortune and good luck. Just one win – particularly a big win at a big track like Darlington or Charlotte or Daytona (although I'm sure Junior and McGrew would take a win at ANY track) – will go a long way towards turning what up to now has been a mediocre team with little luck into a winning potential champion with lots of luck on its side.

Hey, it worked for Jimmie Johnson. Who says it can't work for Dale Jr.?

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