Unusual situation awaits Earnhardt Jr. and Ives
August 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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Crew chief changes almost always occur because something is wrong. The car isn't performing as well as expected. The relationship between the driver and the person on the pit box is strained. The race team is torn apart by tension. The vast majority of the time, a crew chief change is an attempt to remedy some underlying problem which is ultimately having a negative impact on performance.
All of which makes this looming transfer of power on Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 program so interesting. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the midst of his best season in a decade, looking ever more like a championship threat in the wake of Sunday's victory at Pocono Raceway, his third of the year. This team isn't struggling -- it's firing on every possible cylinder, and powered by the relationship between a driver and a crew chief who often seem of a single mind.
And yet, that relationship has an expiration date, given that crew chief Steve Letarte is stepping down after this season to pursue a second career as a television analyst. It's a laudable, inarguable move by a dad and a husband who clearly has his life priorities in order, as bittersweet as it might seem to Earnhardt and members of his fan base. But it's also a rather rare occurrence, a crew chief leaving when things are going this well, and it doesn't leave much historical precedence to predict how Earnhardt and Greg Ives may fare together in 2015.
No question, all the signs are positive -- as a longtime engineer for Jimmie Johnson and now a crew chief for Chase Elliott in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Ives comes from the same 48/88 shop which has built not one but two powerhouse programs, and he's well-known to Earnhardt given his time at both Hendrick and JR Motorsports. The familiarity and the relationships are clearly there -- although you could have said the same thing about Matt Kenseth and Chip Bolin when the latter took over Roush's traditionally strong No. 17 program prior to the 2008 campaign.
The parallels aren't exact, but you still have a team on very good footing -- Kenseth had won at least one race in each of the previous six seasons, won a championship in 2003, and pushed Johnson to the wire for the title in 2006 -- and a crew chief leaving for the right reasons. Robbie Reiser and Kenseth seemed joined at the hip, even more so than Earnhardt and Letarte are today, given that the two Wisconsinites came up racing together on short tracks across the upper Midwest. When the call came for Reiser to move up to general manager, he couldn't say no. His replacement was a natural one -- Bolin, the No. 17 team's engineer through all those winning campaigns, would simply slide over one seat on the box.
All the ingredients were in place for a seamless transition -- except, it wasn't. Kenseth went winless for the first time since 2001, finished an uncharacteristic 11th in final points, and at the end of the season all parties agreed that Bolin was better suited as an engineer. Drew Blickensderfer came aboard and oversaw a Daytona 500 victory, but Kenseth -- a very hands-on driver when it comes to the makeup of his race team -- would go through two more crew chief changes over the next year and a half before returning to form with another guy from Wisconsin, in this case Jimmy Fennig.
Now, what does all that portend for Earnhardt and Ives? Nothing, really, except to suggest that even what seem to be the best of arrangements can go sideways on occasion. Hendrick is in a better position now than Roush was then, Ives will have more experience calling races than Bolin did, and Earnhardt will have all the resources of NASCAR's best team at his disposal. But Kenseth is as good as they come, and if he can struggle (relatively speaking) in a situation where all the history and all the personal relationships would suggest otherwise, then anyone can.
The index case for this kind of breakup might be found back at the Hendrick shop itself -- although one very different from the facility we know today, before the glass and steel showpieces and the pit crew workout area on the main lawn. After 47 victories and on the heels of back-to-back championship seasons, Ray Evernham left Jeff Gordon's program with seven races remaining in the 1999 campaign to lay the groundwork for his own team, which would spearhead Dodge's return to the sport. Gordon hardly missed a beat, winning twice more that season with interim signal-called Brian Whitesell, three the next year with Evernham's successor Robbie Loomis, and then added a fourth title in 2001.
Indeed, Gordon wrote the textbook on how to move on after losing a successful crew chief, and could surely serve as a font of advice for his teammate Earnhardt. But that particular situation is a prickly application to today, given that the cars and the inspection processes and even the sport were all so different back then. And for all their success together, Gordon and Evernham had probably run their course. Gordon was no longer a young driver by that time, but a mature competitor with his own ideas, and in less need of such a rigid crew chief. Had Evernham not left, an inevitable separation was probably coming nonetheless.
That is certainly not the case with Earnhardt and Letarte, who look like they could keep going for years together if circumstances were different. And recent NASCAR history is full of evidence of how a new crew chief can reinvigorate a driver, from Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff last season at Joe Gibbs Racing, to Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers this season at Stewart-Haas Racing, to Dave Rogers taking over Kyle Busch's program late in the 2009 season to Letarte pairing with Gordon late in the 2005 campaign. Given the state of his program at present, Earnhardt doesn't need someone to spark that invigoration -- he needs someone to keep it going.
Beginning in 2015, that task falls to Ives, who would appear to have all the tools to make it happen -- a strong relationship with Earnhardt, experience atop the box, enough time remaining in this season to familiarize himself with his future driver's preferences, and undoubtedly fast cars. From a personnel standpoint, this is the perfect move for a team that right now is stronger than Kenseth's was in 2008, more cohesive than Gordon's was in 1999, and part of a larger organization more potent than anything NASCAR has seen since the heyday of Petty Enterprises. This should work. This will work.
And yet until Ives is on the box making calls for the No. 88 team, the unknowns will linger. Joey Logano took a step forward after crew chief Greg Zipadelli left to become competition director at Stewart-Haas, winning a race with Ratcliff and positioning himself for his current ride with Team Penske.
Then there was Bobby Labonte, who along with Jimmy Makar built one of the preeminent teams of its time, winning 19 races and a title in an eight-year stretch. Makar left to become JGR's director of racing operations, Labonte won twice the following season with Michael McSwain -- and never won again.
Such a prediction for Earnhardt would be dire and unfounded, given all he's shown over the past two seasons. Regardless of who the crew chief is, the No. 88 team appears too strong to do anything put continue on its current trajectory. But in racing, simulations are one thing. Everything changes when the car hits the track for real.