The honeymoon is finally over, and this weekend will prove to be another big step in the life of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Lance McGrew.
McGrew, who replaced Tony Eury Jr. 12 races into the 2009 season, knew he had his work cut out for him after Rick Hendrick told him he would be the next crew chief to take his best shot at putting Earnhardt back into victory lane.
"It's the most challenging assignment anybody's ever had, just because of the profile," said McGrew after Rick told him he would be Earnhardt’s next crew chief.
McGrew also added that, "Not only is it important for Dale Jr. to run for Hendrick Motorsports competitively, I think it's important for the sport. He has such a tremendous amount of fan base, you don't want to know people are turning off the TV at home because Dale Jr’s not running good."
The obvious question that came to mind after McGrew took over was how will this affect Junior's team and, equally important, his mindset?
There had to be some damage done not only to Earnhardt’s confidence level, but also the trust issue that goes along with building a new driver-crew chief relationship.
For years, Earnhardt placed all his trust into the relationship that he and Eury Jr. put into his career, only to have it taken away from him because of poor results.
Whether or not the blame could have, or should have, been put on Eury doesn’t matter any more, and you have to wonder what kind of truth there was to this comment Kyle Busch made after Eury was replaced?
“McGrew’s got his hands full, I guess, having to deal with what’s going on. If Junior doesn’t run well, then he’s going to be the problem. It’s never Junior. It’s always the crew chief.”
Throughout Earnhardt’s career sugar coating the inevitable wasn’t an option, instead it became common practice to read excuse after excuse for his shortcomings, even though the facts spoke otherwise.
How many more excuses can the nation, or for that matter the fans in general, continue to make up on his behalf instead of realizing it’s them who is trying to make him into something that he is not?
It’s a proven fact that Earnhardt went through a really tough transition period having to race and, at the same time, uphold a name that is considered greatness around the world of racing.
Couple that together with the high expectations his fans so uncaringly put upon his shoulders and driving for a team where dreams are supposed to come true, and once again his crew chief will be the one to take all the blame.
Now here they are one year later, and as McGrew so mildly put it after their 18th place finish at Darlington, he is ready to go to work.
"I think the best thing is that now we have a notebook," crew chief Lance McGrew said afterward.
McGrew also added, "We didn't have that. And now we can go back and we can look and we can see what we can do."
McGrew has his work cut out for him if he expects to lead Earnhardt into the chase, because so far the only difference from this time last season is they are sitting 12th in points instead of 18th.
The transition for Earnhardt as well as McGrew has not been an easy one, especially when you consider that Earnhardt is the sport's most popular driver and that he has had to patch up the damage that has been plaguing the team for the past two and a half seasons.
Anything less then making the chase would do nothing but more harm, which in turn could leave his fans sitting back wondering if that’s who he really is.
Earnhardt enters Dover for this weekend’s race with his one and only victory here coming in the first Cup race following the Sept. 11 attacks back in 2001.
Earnhardt displayed the American flag during his victory lap to pay tribute to the victims, amidst the chants of “USA,” which rang through the grandstands during his victory lap.
McGrew and the No. 88 crew will unload Hendrick Motorsports Chassis No. 88-578, and the last time Earnhardt raced this chassis was at Bristol Motor Speedway in March, when he scored a seventh finish.
Just how far McGrew can carry the team will depend most on how much effort Earnhardt gives back.
There is no need for anymore excuses, instead it's time to see exactly what this team as a whole is made of.
"A lot of building blocks would be the best way to describe it. There's been some good and some bad,” said McGrew when talking about what the team has gone through in the last year.
“I feel like we are finally getting to a place where I like the structure of the team, the way the guys are working together and how things get done in the race shop. I think we've seen flashes of that this year where we have run really, really well.”