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Monday Morning Crew Chief: E Is For Effort

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 24 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been able to draw a crowd.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been able to draw a crowd.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

This week’s edition of Monday Morning Crew Chief:

* There’s no cheering in the press box – even if you’re holding the leader’s number in the $20 pool. But the rules are different during an off weekend at home sitting in front of the TV. So I spent the telecast of the Sharpie 500 from Bristol pulling for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There’s no denying his talent and charisma, but rarely does Earnhardt Jr. get credit for the degree of difficulty when it comes to being the favorite son of NASCAR Nation.

If he wins, he still hasn’t measured up to his legendary father – unless he wins a championship or two. Or more. If he doesn’t win, well, it’s pretty much the same story.

One has to admire how Earnhardt Jr. has taken this situation as it comes. In a dog-eat-dog competitive world full of second-guessers, he retains a sense of humor, invariably has an interesting perspective and shares a gift of gab that’s reminiscent of his maternal grandfather Robert Gee.

He enjoys his role as NASCAR’s most popular driver, works hard with sponsors and the media and remains accessible to fans as much as any driver these days.

In a manner reminiscent of his father, Earnhardt Jr. stood up for himself by leaving the DEI team owned by stepmother Teresa Earnhardt. He challenged himself by moving to Hendrick Motorsports, where it could be predicted his teammates were going to be winning regularly.

Given Kyle Busch’s success after leaving Hendrick Motorsport last year, Jimmie Johnson’s third championship for Hendrick and Mark Martin’s success since arriving at the team this year, the pressure has ratcheted up considerably on “Little E.”

It was Richard Petty who often said the only place where he had time to himself was in a race car. Petty Enterprises was a family operation that had its ups and downs, but conflicts rarely erupted during races. In the case of Earnhardt Jr., even in the cockpit he has been embroiled in family relationships at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then at Hendrick, that clearly were aggravating.

Earnhardt Jr., his uncle Tony Eury Sr. and cousin Tony Eury Jr. all seemed caught up in sustaining a legacy. It worked OK on the restrictor plate tracks when DEI had a horsepower advantage and the victories piled up. The rest was pretty much downhill, especially when that advantage on restrictor plate tracks went away after 2006.

In his second year at Hendrick since leaving DEI, Earnhardt Jr. is now on his own in Sprint Cup events, so to speak, with crew chief  Lance McGrew. Former crew chiefs Eury Sr. and Eury Jr. each now have separate roles at Hendrick, a tribute to family loyalty but also, finally, practicality.

It’s a stretch to say two consecutive Top 10 finishes means the corner has been turned. But the final cutting of family ties when it comes to getting the car around the track may be what’s needed to set Earnhardt Jr. free to concentrate on driving.

As odd as it may sound, he can be himself in the cockpit. He can focus on just what his Hendrick teammates are doing to be successful without getting caught up in the anger, and quite possibly grief, that was so often evident when working with family members since that fateful day at Daytona in 2001.

* Let It Rain: We caught up with Ron Fellows via cell phone as the driver prepares to defend his victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal this coming Sunday.

The Canadian has the distinction of winning a Nationwide Series event in the rain last year at Montreal, which is not surprising since he has been victorious in the wet at the Le Mans 24-hour and in the Rolex 24 at Daytona on board a Corvette as well as in the Nationwide Series at Watkins Glen in the dry.

RacinToday: Is it practical to be racing stock cars in the rain?

Fellows: “It’s absolutely practical. It has nothing to do with the cars. The cars are fine in the rain. [The Nationwide car] is heavier than the GT car, the Corvette, which helps.

“The history and culture of road racing is that you ran in all kinds of different weather. NASCAR has never run races in the rain on an oval and probably never will.

“Last year when we were on the parade laps, it was sunny and people in the stands were wearing shirt sleeves and the stands were full. When we did some caution laps in the rain to get some of the water off the track, the stands were still full. People were wearing panchos and holding umbrellas. They came prepared. The race fan expects the show to go on and it did.”

RacinToday: You must have done a fair amount of racing in the rain early in your career.

Fellows: “In ’77 there was an absolute downpour at Mosport (during the Formula 1 weekend) and Ronnie Peterson was in the six-wheel Tyrrell and did the entire one and a half hour practice session. He was just having fun. There was enough time for me to get to every corner and watch how he drove them in the rain. That was a very solid lesson on how to drive in the rain at Mosport.”

* Danica Stays Home: Danica Patrick was going to move to NASCAR only if she could get the month of May off to run the Indianapolis 500, where winning remains her number one focus.

A driver would miss two Sprint Cup points races at the most by racing at Indy, but a team can still sustain owner points with a substitute driver.

Patrick may have been able to get Andretti Green Racing to reorganize itself to retain her and the lucrative sponsorships she brings to the IndyCar team. But she couldn’t bring in a combined Indy/NASCAR deal, a prerequisite to going stock car racing.

Penske Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and possibly Stewart-Haas Racing were the only teams that could make winning at Indy and a NASCAR ride a real possibility. The big problem: how to put sponsorship together for a program like that in the current economic environment.

* This Just In: The announcement of the arrival of Drayson Racing at the Petit Le Mans next month in an LMP1 category Lola-Judd would be more impressive absent an owner/driver installing himself in the cockpit. …American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz has pulled the plug on building a road-going GT1 car designed to win over-all at Le Mans. This from the horse’s mouth. …The Grand-Am Rolex Series will test at Indianapolis the first week of September. That brings to mind the IndyCar test at Daytona a while back. It turned out to be, well, just a test.

Jack Flowers’ book titled The Dirt Under The Asphalt is available at rosedogbookstore.com. It’s subtitled An Underground History of Stock Car Racing. Given Jack’s longevity and many sources, it should be interesting, if not riveting.

* This writer is impressed: Stefan Johansson reports that he recently sold a watch from his label to Brad Pitt. See StefanJohansson.com to gander at Johansson’s line of Swiss-made watches.

If lots of money was so necessary to great racing, why is the NHRA flourishing in this environment?

Speaking of money, if the Sprint Cup races at Dover and Pocono were trimmed to 500 kilometers, or 312 miles, would TV producers request a halftime in order to insert ads in the middle of the races? This is not to pick on TV executives, who help make watching any Sprint Cup race a chore due to so many ads. The track owners, team owners and NASCAR all have their hands in the big money pot produced by those ads.

* Next up: Mosport (Aug. 30), Atlanta (Sept. 5) and Motegi (Sept. 19).

See ya! …At the races.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 24 2009
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