For Ives and Dale Jr., it started with smack talk
July 31, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought he was going to run roughshod over Greg Ives.
Of course, NASCAR's most popular driver thought he was going to run roughshod over everyone when he was first invited to join "Hendrick Honchos," the Hendrick Motorsports in-house fantasy football league comprised mostly of executives, engineers and crew chiefs.
"When it comes to fantasy football, I've got a little bit of a potty mouth and do a little smack talking," Earnhardt remembered. "I thought I was just going to grab the reins and run the league with my jaw."
And he planned to treat Ives, then an engineer on Jimmie Johnson's race team, no differently. What followed was, shall we say, a somewhat original first encounter between Earnhardt and Ives, whom Hendrick announced Wednesday would take over as crew chief for the No. 88 team when current signal caller Steve Letarte departs after this season to become a television analyst for NBC Sports.
When it came time for Earnhardt's team to meet Ives' undefeated fantasy squad, the game was on.
"I guaranteed a win, and he ended up destroying me," Earnhardt said. "Not only on the gridiron, or the fantasy make-believe gridiron, but also on the message board as well. I found out that I wasn’t the best smack talker in the league, Greg was. So we became buddies after that, and joked around and picked. That seems like such a long time ago. But it's pretty funny now that we're going to be working together. We started off on an really odd foot, I'll say that."
From those strange beginnings, a friendship grew. Ives served as Johnson's engineer for seven seasons, and during the latter part of his tenure Hendrick paired the 88 and 48 teams in the same building. When it came time for JR Motorsports -- the Nationwide Series team founded and co-owned by Earnhardt -- to hire a new crew chief for Regan Smith prior to the 2013 season, the call went to Ives. When JRM needed a steady hand to oversee the rookie season of Nationwide driver Chase Elliott, Ives moved to the No. 9 team.
And when Hendrick Motorsports went looking for a successor to Letarte, despite what general manager Doug Duchardt termed overwhelming interest from the garage area, NASCAR's top organization once again looked within to find another person with strong ties to Earnhardt, and many of the same qualities as the No. 88 team's outgoing crew chief.
"It may not be so obvious, Greg and Dale's relationship," Duchardt said. "But I remember that their relationship began in our fantasy football league with Dale and Greg actually having one of the best smack-talk competitions we've ever had in our league. That's how I knew they had a good rapport. It started back then, and they worked very well together when Greg was team engineer and Dale was driver. And then obviously that relationship grew as Greg was crew chief at JRM and Dale was owner."
Ives, part of five championship campaigns with Johnson, called Earnhardt "one of the greatest drivers I'll get to work with." Earnhardt's friendship with his future crew chief is rooted in professional respect.
"I have known Greg a long time, admired his understanding of the sport and how he's inspired to move along in his career and take the necessary steps to be successful and get to where he wants to go as a crew chief. That's why I was really excited about his opportunity to be a part of JR Motorsports and get that first opportunity as a crew chief," Earnhardt said.
"I've always admired his knowledge of how a car works, and his attention to detail is very, very important. His demeanor and personality is very easy going. I find him a fun guy to be around. Real easy to talk to. We've had a great working relationship for several years. The best part about it, though, is he knows the culture of the 48/88 shop. He knows what that shop's all about. … Not only is he the most talented candidate for the job, it'll also be the most seamless transition."
Just as long as smack talk over fantasy football doesn't get in the way.