The NASCAR Media Tour, presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway, gathered at the sprawling Hendrick Motor Sports Complex for a catered lunch and interviews.
Once introductions were complete, five chairs on the stage were occupied with one owner and four NASCAR stars.
From the beginning, it was hard not to see a difference between three Hendrick Motorsports drivers and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Looking fresh, clean shaven, and projecting a positive attitude about the new season with their words and actions, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon seemed to be in a different zone than Earnhardt Jr.
Sporting a collection of winter wheat on his face, Jr. not only arrived at the function separately from Hendrick and the rest of the teams, he brought along the familiar black cloud that has been plaguing him for the past year.
Doug Rice, Performance Racing Network broadcaster and emcee of the day’s event, asked Jr. if he felt there was chemistry between him and relatively new chief Lance McGrew.
Chemistry is a huge part of success, especially when success depends on the collaboration of multiple participants.
In a slow, almost depressively drawn voice, Earnhardt Jr. made it clear he’s never had chemistry with anyone.
“I can’t really say I have been in a situation yet where the chemistry for me was really going. I have been with some great teams and had some good wins and great success, but it’s hard for me to point out what great chemistry is just yet.”
The tone and deliberation in Earnhardt Jr.’s voice seemed to grasp the crowd quickly. As he continued to elaborate on the question, his words also seemed to catch the attention of his boss Rick Hendrick to such a degree that Hendrick actually leaned forward and momentarily stared at his most popular driver.
“I get along great with Lance, and he’s a lot of fun. We enjoy being around each other and we can build on that friendship and learn from each other at the race track. All that stuff will eventually work itself out. I think we are definitely going in the right direction, which is good compared to the direction we were going last year.”
A short time later during the interview sessions, McGrew seemed un-fazed by Jr’s comments. He was, however, quick to defend his boss and point out most of the problems surrounding the team are media created, not actual problems.
“I don’t know what happened in American culture that everyone has to be so negative," said McGrew.
“There are so many positives in the guy and this organization, but everyone focuses on the negative.”
$22 million a year in endorsements and a seventh most popular driver award is hardly focusing on the negative.
Jr.’s situation going into this season isn’t much different than his final seasons at DEI.
His poor performances were blamed on Theresa and her inability to provide good equipment.
A highly publicized change to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports was heralded as Jr.’s ticket to a championship.
After a tiny glimmer of success, here we are again, same story, different owner, and, well, different crew chief.
Maybe the negativity driving the lack of success is coming from within—within the cockpit of the No. 88 car.
Jr.'s comments from the stage didn't exactly paint a masterpiece of his relationship with McGrew. Whether he felt that way or not, there is a time to put on a happy face and speak positive about your future and your teammates, especially when the majority of mainstream media is looking on.
While McGrew may think it's the media driving the negativity, he's wrong. All a person had to do was listen to what Jr. had to say away from the stage.
“Everyone keeps asking what went wrong or what was bad about the car. I am tired of being asked that question over and over again. I can’t always tell what’s wrong or why we ran badly, but you keep asking and it gets old.”
He then abruptly finishes with this statement, “I guess I dug that ditch, so I guess I have to lie in it.”
What ever ditch Jr. is talking about, he is the one who must crawl out if it. He’s the only one who can remove the black cloud and change his negative attitude, or someday soon, someone will realize there are only so many people who will fit under a bus.
Photo Credit: David L. Yeazell