Most drivers would consider a top 10 finish in the points standings as a great year. Most drivers would consider a year with over twenty top 10 finishes to be a great year. However, Dale Earnhardt isn't most drivers. He's not someone from California or Washington or Wisconsin who grew up wanting to race another type of car. Dale Earnhardt was born to be a stock car driver. With over 70 wins, 7 Winston Cup titles to his credit, and finally a Daytona 500 victory, he has accomplished everything in racing. Except for one thing; he wants to win his 8th championship to break the tie with Richard Petty. Here's why that will probably never happen.
From 1986 until 1995, Earnhardt dominated stock car racing. Any year that he didn't win the title was considered a disappointing year. However, since the middle of the 1996 season, Earnhardt has won just one race, rarely has qualified inside the top 25, and frequently battles through race traffic on raceday. Why have things gone downward for the 7 time champion? The answer isn't crystal clear but there are a few explanations.
In July 1996, Dale Earnhardt was in the points lead. After losing the Winston Cup in 1995 to upstart Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt seemed on a course to win that elusive eighth title. However, after Ernie Irvan initiated a wreck at Talladega, Earnhardt's car hit the frontstretch wall head-on. He suffered a broken sternum, and a number of other injuries. Driving hurt, he was unable to run consistently for the rest of the summer. After the season, David Smith was let go as crew chief on the car. In came Larry McReynolds.
Larry McReynolds was the crew chief for the late Davey Allison. Earnhardt saw the chemistry that McReynolds and Allison shared with the 28 car. Though McReynolds had never won a title and was a Ford crew chief, Earnhardt had no reservations about handing him the keys to the GM Goodwrench shop. Two years later, the man with a reputation for smoke and mirrors has borne the brunt of the blame from the media and from race fans for the failures of the #3 car.
When Dale Earnhardt won the 1980, 1986, and 1987 Winston Cup titles his engine builder was Lou LaRosa. LaRosa left Earnhardt's team in 1988 to explore other options and help some other teams. He went to work for Kenny Bernstein's #26 Quaker State team. Ricky Rudd was there, then Brett Bodine came in. The crew chief was Larry McReynolds. Rudd would run practice laps and his times would be off the pace. McReynolds blamed the engine department headed by LaRosa. LaRosa said it was the chassis which were setup by McReynolds. At the time, Kenny Bernstein was an absentee owner. He had a full drag racing schedule and couldn't devote himself to the Winston Cup team that he owned on a full time basis. McReynolds told Bernstein that the engines were the problem; LaRosa had seen enough and left. McReynolds later left the team and headed to Robert Yates Racing with Davey Allison.
Davey Allison won 19 races in his career. Many of those came with McReynolds as his crew chief. After a Talladega race in 1991, Davey was upset that nobody would draft with him on the track. He went into his hauler and punched out a wall. To his credit, McReynolds seemed to calm down the temperamental Allison. McReynolds seems to be at his best with a team ready to 'take the next step' so to speak. As we fast forward in time to 1996, McReynolds had grown frustrated with Ernie Irvan. He had probably grown frustrated with himself as well. Ernie and Derrike Cope wrecked at Dover in September 1996. Cope was taken to the infield care center after a hard impact with the wall. After walking out of the infield care center, Cope was attacked from behind by an irate, out of control crew chief. It was Larry McReynolds. Despite that incident and his erratic track record, Earnhardt hired him in the offseason and expressed an air of confidence in February 1997 at Daytona.
After winning a race every year since 1979, Earnhardt failed to win a single race in 1997. McReynolds said that he needed time to get used to Dale's preferences. Maybe so. But a full season without a win? Dale finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 after twenty tries. After the #3 car crossed the finish line, the TV cameras focused on the crew. McReynolds seemed more relieved than happy about the occasion. The man famous for smoke and mirrors had won his first race with Dale Earnhardt; a race that he had three months to prepare for; but a race nevertheless.
When drivers talk about the best of all time, Earnhardt's name always appears on a short list. His record speaks for itself. In this decade, he won the Winston Cup in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994. He finished second by 37 points in 1995. He still gets more out of a car than any driver on the track. But, the results don't show it. The #3 car always seems to roll off the truck on Friday morning a step behind. Is that Dale's fault? No. Is that the fault of the crew and more importantly the crew chief? Without a doubt.
Detractors have said that Earnhardt should retire since he rarely wins anymore. Well, Bill Elliott hasn't visited victory lane in ages; neither has Kenny Schrader. But are fans suggesting they hang it up? Of course not. To be compared to yourself based on past performance is probably the worst indicator of current success. Wayne Gretzky probably won't score 92 goals in a hockey season again, but he's still a better scorer than 99% of the players in the NHL. Earnhardt probably won't win 11 races in a year again; he probably won't win back-to-back Winston Cups again. But he's still a better driver than most everyone on that track. Long time race fans know the value of having Dale Earnhardt as a part of Winston Cup racing. He can be ornery, aloof, and on occasion, rude; but he's the embodiment of a stock car racer on the track. The open face helmet he wears is a throwback to a different time. A time of Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Tim Flock, and so on.
His off-track demeanor is another story. He may portray himself as a simple hunter and fisherman from North Carolina, but don't let the image fool you. He's well aware of merchandise sales over the course of a season. Don Hawk runs Earnhardt's business affairs shrewdly. Though there have only been flashes of the 'Intimidator' attitude since the Wrangler-sponsored days of the mid-80's, he's marketed the slogan and has built an empire. He ranked 8th on the Forbes list of most wealthy athletes last year without winning a single Winston Cup event. If Earnhardt finishes in 20th place in a race, that might be a disappointing finish. But Dale still outsells every other driver in merchandise sales. To the business managers, that's a great day. I doubt that the driver feels that it was a great day though. The day that merchandising becomes more important than on-track results for any driver is the day to hang it up.
Lou LaRosa said that Earnhardt would be successful as long as Richard Childress, Earnhardt's car owner, stayed on top of the organization. Well, Richard is still there, but he has other interests. He fields a second car with Mike Skinner behind the wheel. In addition he fields a truck team for Jay Sauter. The focus of RCR has always been Dale Earnhardt. It probably still is; though the guy calling the shots on raceday for the #3 car leaves something to be desired. If you think that Dale will win his eighth title while McReynolds is his crew chief, you must be an diehard Earnhardt fan. And there's nothing wrong with that; but take a step back and look at the situation and the past history of Larry McReynolds.
So what is the conclusion in all of this? Well, in simplest terms, Dale Earnhardt can still drive. He's still capable of winning races. Regrettably, because of the performance (or lack thereof) of his crew chief in setting up a car, he rarely gets a chance to prove that.
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