McGrew: Junior in position for Chase

Updated: January 4, 2010, 6:26 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Crew chief Lance McGrew is so excited about offseason changes to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup team that he's ready to guarantee that NASCAR's most popular driver qualifies for the Chase in 2010.

"Absolutely," McGrew told ESPN.com on Monday. "This team is stronger than it's ever been. This building [Mark Martin's No. 5 team shares the building] is stronger than it's ever been."

One of the most significant additions was Chris Heroy, the chief engineer for Martin's team that won five races and finished second in points in 2009.

Chris Doherty, who worked for the research and development department, was promoted to second engineer. Kevin Hulstein, one of Martin's road crew mechanics, will serve in the same capacity for Earnhardt. Brad Pickens, Martin's gas man, will be in charge of assembly for both teams.

McGrew said the seven primary over-the-wall crew will remain the same. He said most of the changes were to make the 88-5 shop run more as a one-car team like the adjacent shop of four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

"The difference has always been they [Johnson and Gordon] were created out of one team," McGrew said. "The 5 and 25 was put together from two separate entities. There's always been a lot of people that were diehard 5 guys or diehard 25 guys or 88 as they are now.

"So there was a lot of segregation that just wasn't beneficial for the building."

McGrew said he and Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, agreed the best way to send a message that they are working as one was through what he called cross-pollination.

"Just to let everybody know how serious we are about making one team out of this building," he said. "Alan conceding some of his guys and us reorganizing some of the 88 team into pretty valuable positions in the shop, it allows us to do a lot of things we couldn't do last year as a building."

McGrew is most excited about the addition of Heroy, who will allow last year's lead engineer Tom Stewart to stay at home on race weekends to run seven-post simulations and other tests in preparation for upcoming events.

By doing that McGrew expects to have engineering data for the next race and perhaps the following week's race on Monday rather than the Wednesday before the race.

McGrew also likes the way Heroy's outgoing personality meshed with Earnhardt during a tire test at Chicagoland last season.

"Dale commented on how much he enjoyed working with him," McGrew said. "Chris is just a real upbeat guy. That goes a long way when you're dealing with somebody introverted like Dale is. You've got to have strong characters around him."

McGrew believes that and more efficient preparation alone will help Earnhardt improve dramatically over what was his worst season since coming to Cup full time in 2000.

"We needed to make some changes, play on people's strengths," McGrew said. "We had a lot of the right people but maybe not in the right spots."

McGrew replaced Earnhardt's long-time crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr., in the 13th race last season with Earnhardt mired at 19th in points. Earnhardt went on to finish a career-worst 25th in points with a career-low two top-5s and five top-10s. He failed to win a race for only the second time in 10 years.

McGrew is optimistic that offseason changes will correct all that.

"I'm more than optimistic," he said. "A lot more."

David Newton covers motorsports for ESPN.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter