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Junior and Lance, Now We’re Talking

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 2 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. now has somebody to talk to. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. now has somebody to talk to. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway must have seemed like the first day of working a new job.

There were new ways of doing things to get accustomed to, new voices replacing familiar ones, and high expectations all around.

By all accounts, his 12th-place finish earned him a passing grade and offered the Junior Nation renewed hopes for better days ahead.

Team-owner Rick Hendrick, who made the decision to replace Earnhardt’s cousin, Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew as crew chief on the No. 88 Chevrolet, seemed as impressed with the communication between driver and crew as he did with the overall result.

“I thought it was a really good effort,” Hendrick said. “I thought the communication was really good. The car, we got to the front. We were one adjustment off that we had to take out of the car. But overall, I’d give it a really good grade. I think had we not had that adjustment we have a top six or a top five car…

“The feedback was really good… I think that we have something to build on there going to Pocono.”

Feedback from a driver during a race is the key to making the adjustments that compensate for changing track conditions during a race. Jimmie Johnson is considered one of the best at giving good feed back, and that goes a long ways toward explaining his 42 Cup wins and three championships in the past eight years.

Sometimes teams go stale because the basic communications don’t convey the right information.

Former Hendrick driver Terry Labonte once told the story of a test session where his son Justin, then a relatively inexperienced driver, took a turn at the wheel and impressed the crew with his feedback.

He was telling the crew things about the car that Labonte had assumed the folks in the pits were aware of, things that he hadn’t been pointing out.

“I just never thought about telling them some of that stuff,” Labonte said.

Earnhardt now finds himself in the position of being asked for more specific feedback, Hendrick said. That information in turn is used by McGrew, Brian Whitesell, Rex Stump and others to make changes to the car.

“It pressed Junior to explain what the car was doing,” Hendrick said, adding that the team leaders first told Earnhardt what kinds of information they were looking for.

“They started in practice…. saying ‘This is the way we want you to break the corners down and tell us what the car’s doing. And this is the way we want you to explain it to us and we’ll try and help you.’”

Just as the new ways of doing business on a new job can be daunting, the new approach to feedback was something Earnhardt had to adjust to.

“I think it challenged Junior, and he did a super job,” Hendrick said. “I am extremely proud of the way he worked on the radio with Lance, and the communication sounded to me like they’ve been together for years.

 “It’s just a method that our engineers and our crew chiefs use, and Lance has been in the middle of that. And I think Tony [Eury] was really kind of letting Junior make the decisions and he would give some input.”

Hendrick pointed out that Eury also is going to get the benefit of learning another style of communicating feedback when he takes Jimmie Johnson to a road-course test this week.

 “Tony’s being at a road course test with Jimmie Johnson is going to open his horizons to working with a totally different guy that gives feedback a different way,” Hendrick said.

Even though the two Juniors likely will separately learn a lot about communication and feedback, it’s unlikely they’ll ever have a chance to try it again in the top levels of the sport. And Earnhardt said after the Dover race that makes him a little sad.

“I’m going to miss working with Tony, Jr. that closely,” he said. “Hopefully we get to work together indirectly throughout the rest of our careers, some way, some how.

“But, I think, working with Lance, I have worked with him before. He has a good personality. I think we are going to get along just fine.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 2 2009
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