Commentary

It's sink or swim for Earnhardt, McGrew

Updated: May 19, 2010, 3:03 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Lance McGrew says all is well. He and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are fine, McGrew claims. They are "leaps and bounds" ahead of where the No. 88 Chevy team was last year, McGrew says.

Do you believe him?

Almost a year has passed since McGrew took over as Earnhardt's crew chief, a change that the legion of Earnhardt fans hoped would lead to better days ahead.

Has it?

McGrew had a positive perspective when he spoke with my colleague, ESPN.com's David Newton, on Monday.

[+] EnlargeLance McGrew
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesLance McGrew, above, and his driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., are sitting 16th in the Sprint Cup standings -- four spots out of Chase contention.

"I definitely feel it's working," McGrew said. "Dale deserves a shot to work with somebody for a long period of time and keep everybody together."

Nothing wrong with that. As the leader of the team, it's McGrew's job to motivate his drivers and crew by emphasizing the good over the bad.

But one year into this pairing, something is amiss.

Yes, I know the obvious answer for all you Earnhardt critics: He just isn't that good as a driver, and he's overrated no matter who he has as a crew chief.

Sorry, guys. I'm not buying it.

Earnhardt has 18 Cup victories. He has finished in the top five in the season standings three times.

You don't luck into those stats, folks. It happens to someone who has the skill to wheel a race car with the best.

Granted, that was a long time ago, and something has changed. Two and a half years into Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports move, it isn't working. And it's questionable whether things are working with McGrew.

One year ago after 12 races, before McGrew took over for Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt was 19th in the standings with one top-5 and three top-10s. After 12 races this season, Earnhardt is 16th in the standings with one top-5 and three top-10s.

McGrew is correct in saying things are better for them this season, although "leaps and bounds" might be a stretch. In the 25 races they had together last year, Earnhardt's average finish was 24.7. His average finish this year is 16.7, despite two finishes of 30th or worse in the past three races.

Is that good enough for you?

One thing to point out here that few people ever bring up: Hendrick Motorsports never has had four cars running great at the same time.

The closest to a successful foursome was in 2006 and '07 (the two seasons before Earnhardt arrived), when four cars finished in the top 15. In 2006, three cars were top-10, and Brian Vickers was 15th with one victory. In 2007, three cars finished in the top five with Johnson (the champion), Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, and Casey Mears was 15th.

Jack Roush had five cars in the 2005 Chase, the only time more than three cars on one team were contenders.

Earnhardt has moments when he looks like a contender again, but way too many moments when he doesn't. And it gets to him. More often than not, he's not a happy guy.

Earnhardt and McGrew continue to have snippy moments on the radio during races when things aren't going well. It's part of the drill in working with Earnhardt. Drivers and crew chiefs argue regularly, but things are magnified for Earnhardt.

I just get pissed when my stuff isn't good, you know. Hell, it's what you are supposed to do. You aren't supposed to be happy about it.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After a rough night and snarky radio comments at each other in Darlington, Earnhardt got out of the car and said everything is fine with McGrew. They smiled and joked around.

As he has done many times before, Earnhardt explained his radio rants last week at Dover.

"I just get pissed when my stuff isn't good, you know," he said. "Hell, it's what you are supposed to do. You aren't supposed to be happy about it."

Testy radio conversation is no big deal, but I'm not convinced by their public proclamations of Shangri-la that everything is good in 88 Land.

Do they respect each other? Does Earnhardt believe McGrew can make him a contender again? Does McGrew believe Earnhardt is a driver he can guide to meaningful success?

I know what they say, but I don't see it in what they do. And more questions are being asked, like whether Earnhardt fits in at Hendrick.

Maybe the corporate atmosphere at Hendrick doesn't work for him. People wonder if he'd be better off cutting his losses, so to speak, and going somewhere else.

If Earnhardt fans are expecting another change, they probably are in for a disappointment. McGrew's spot on the pit box is solid for now. Earnhardt isn't going anywhere, either.

So it's sink or swim for the 88 team. For the moment, it's up to Earnhardt and McGrew to get it done, and it's a long way from being fixed.

Something is amiss.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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