It's the Pits
Dale Earnhardt's axed crew chief questions the Intimidator's focus
Dale Earnhardt's aloofness from his teammates and preoccupation
with his business interests have contributed to his downfall as
a racer, according to his former crew chief, Larry McReynolds.
"A driver has to be part of his team today," says McReynolds,
who last week was ordered to work with Earnhardt's teammate,
Mike Skinner, as part of a crew-chief swap that owner Richard
Childress hopes will shake some life into his underachieving
operation. Earnhardt's Daytona 500 victory in February is the
only win in four months for the seven-time Winston Cup champion
and the only win this season for Childress's team.
"Talentwise Dale's still there, but the competition has
certainly caught up, and I question his total focus," says
McReynolds. "The days of showing up at a track on Friday, then
hightailing it out of there after the race on Sunday--without
even talking about what the car was doing, and then maybe driver
and crew chief talking to each other once during the week--and
showing up at the next track the next Friday, those days are
That had become Earnhardt's pattern because he has so much going
on. His 1997 income from various businesses and endorsements was
estimated at $19.1 million by Forbes. Only $3.6 million of that
total came from driving for Childress. Among Earnhardt's
enterprises is a Busch Grand National-Winston Cup team,
employing his son, Dale Jr., as one of the drivers.
"Take Mark Martin," McReynolds says. "As good as he is, and as
many races as he wins, he visits his shop once a week and spends
almost a full day there. People like Mark, Dale Jarrett and Jeff
Burton have tunnel vision about their race cars. They've got
other things going on too, but they know what their bread and
Coincidentally, Martin earned his season-leading fourth victory
on Sunday in the Miller Lite 400 at Michigan Speedway. Earnhardt
finished 15th, not bad considering he was forced to start at the
rear of the field in a backup car after having his primary ride
sideswiped and thrown into the wall the day before.
Earnhardt refused to address McReynolds's remarks on Sunday, but
in talking about the crew-chief switch earlier in the week, he
had said, "I don't know that it's chemistry or personalities.
Larry and I have too good a relationship to have had conflict."
The Earnhardt-McReynolds breakup ended 18 months of essential
failure for what had been heralded as a dream pairing. Earnhardt
had sought out McReynolds, hoping to break a slump that began in
March 1996. McReynolds had made regular winners of the late
Davey Allison and then of Ernie Irvan. But try as he did to come
up with winning car setups for Earnhardt, he says, "I don't know
that I ever figured out what he was looking for."
McLaren's G.M. Behind Success
Anyone trying to explain why McLaren has returned to the fore of
Formula One--five wins in the last seven races heading into the
French Grand Prix on June 28--should look no further than
McLaren's enigmatic general manager of 14 years, Ron Dennis, who
plays Grand Prix racing's technological and personnel chess game
as well as anyone.
When F/1 instituted sweeping rules changes for 1998, including
the narrowing of the cars for less aerodynamic downforce and the
mandatory use of grooved tires for less grip on race surfaces,
the objective was to reduce racing speeds. The plan failed
because Dennis successfully countered. Anticipating the
modifications that the new rules would require, he lured master
design engineer Adrian Newey from archrival Williams last
August. Hiring Newey not only assured that McLaren would get a
jump in implementing the new design but also left Williams
Dennis also broke a long relationship with Goodyear, which was
lagging in the development of grooved tires, and took a gamble
on Bridgestone, an upstart to F/1 racing whose tires have shown
superior grip this season. For its crowning edge, McLaren owes
its 800-plus-horsepower engine--the most powerful on the
circuit--to Dennis, who in 1995 wooed Mercedes back into F/1 as
McLaren's engine supplier with the understanding that it would
take Mercedes several seasons of tinkering to achieve
superiority over other engines.
The benefactors of Dennis's strategic moves have been McLaren
drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, who are first and
third, respectively, in the points standings. Hakkinen was
winless in F/1 until the final race of last season. His fortunes
have improved because Dennis knew that Hakkinen, given proper
equipment, could run with the best driver in the world,
Ferrari's Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen has four wins to
Schumacher's two this season.
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANNUphill battle Since winning Daytona, Earnhardt has one top-five finish in 13 races. [Dale Earnhardt's race car]