Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to be more forceful with his Hendrick Motorsports team at times but he worries about upsetting his crew.
Earnhardt knows he must do something after two pedestrian finishes in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup have him seventh in the standings, 26 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson heading into this weekend’s race at Dover.
The time is now for Earnhardt to exert his leadership.
“I'm afraid to come across as a bit of a prick,” Earnhardt said Tuesday about not taking charge as often with his team, particularly when things aren’t going as well. “I don't want to piss somebody off or step on anybody's toes. There's times in the car that I want to step up and go, ‘Hey man, this is really a problem, this is something we really need to fix.’”
Earnhardt used to be more expressive in the car when there was a problem but he often became frustrated and didn’t convey the proper information to help the crew chief fix the car. It’s something car owner Rick Hendrick talked to him about often.
Now that Earnhardt is calmer on the radio, he might need to have a bit more fire in his voice at certain times when he’s talking with crew chief Steve Letarte or wanting to convey a message to his team.
“That is something that me and Steve have yet to learn with each other is when someone needs to pick it up, how do you relay that to that person or if he needs to tell me I need to take something more seriously.
“That's something we have to be careful about. I don't want to piss him off, he doesn't want to piss me off. If I feel like there's something that's really important, that ‘Hey man, this car doesn’t have any forward bite,’ and I really feel that's a problem and we're running out of time and I get really nervous that practice is flying away and I'll miss the opportunity to fix something. And that's something we didn't do a very good job of this past weekend.’’
After finishing eighth at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase, Earnhardt placed 13th last weekend at New Hampshire. He was never in contention and had it not been for a two-tire stop late, when many others took four tires, he might not have finished as high.
Earnhardt’s problems last weekend, though, go beyond the race. They go back to practice on Friday. The team typically starts out in race trim for the first part of the opening practice of the weekend and switches over in the final 30 minutes to qualifying trim and makes two qualifying runs.
Because Earnhardt’s car wasn’t fast, the team spent more time in the race setup and when they switched to qualifying setup, they had only enough time to make one mock qualifying run in practice instead of two.
“That whole practice was a cluster and was not a good way of beginning the weekend,” Earnhardt said.
“I felt like we stubbed our toe trying to practice the way we did. That bled into Saturday. That (first practice) sets the tone and when I got out of the car Saturday and after we thought about it and thought about the car and ideas to change, and even after we came up with the plan, I really didn't feel we were in a good position. It was inevitable to me that the car was not going to be where we needed.”
It wasn’t. While a slow pit stop cost Earnhardt positions early in the race, he remained stuck just inside the top 20 for much of the race and never challenged for a top-10 spot.
“It wasn't one particular person's fault to orchestrate this perfect practice session but us as a group we stumbled and tripped all the way through that,” Earnhardt said. “Sometimes that'll happen. It was a bit frustrating.”
Earnhardt knows that even with eight races left in the Chase, he needs much stronger finishes to have a chance at the title.
“It ain't coming to us,” Earnhardt said. “I'm not going to sit here and paint it like it's roses when it's not. I know the situation and understand the reality of our position. We're 26 points behind. But again, (there’s) a lot of racing left. We have to work hard and go into Dover and try to start the weekend with good practices and utilize every minute that they give us to helping ourselves. We've got to try to do a better job there. If we can do that, I can go into Sunday confident we can give ourselves a shot.”
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter:@DustinLong