RACING2017

Earn­hardt de­fends crew chief Greg Ives in shaky fi­nal sea­son

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DAN GEL­STON DOVER, DEL. —

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. has long reigned as NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver. But too many of his fans have started com­plain­ing in 140-char­ac­ter bursts a most un­pop­u­lar opin­ion for Earn­hardt — that crew chief Greg Ives should take the blame for the No. 88’s strug­gles this sea­son. Not so fast. “We’ve had a dif­fi­cult year and there’s just been a lit­tle rum­bling in the background from fans,” Earn­hardt said Tues­day. “They just love to tar­get the crew chief. Our strug­gles are no one in­di­vid­ual’s re­spon­si­bil­ity. I think me and my crew chief, we have such a very pas­sion­ate fan base, very large fan base, it’s a chal­leng­ing po­si­tion for any­body. I’ve seen that, with all the guys that I’ve worked with.”

Ives, in his third sea­son with Earn­hardt, was crit­i­cized over the week­end for his de­ci­sion in the Brick­yard 400 to send the No. 88 to the pits even though it was good on fuel be­fore the end of the sec­ond stage.

Had Earn­hardt stayed out, he would have come off a restart in­side the top five. In­stead, he was 24th and soon wrecked out of the race when he con­nected with Trevor Bayne. Earn­hardt’s crew also strug­gled with lug nuts on one pit stop.

Earn­hardt, who is re­tir­ing af­ter the sea­son, shut down crit­i­cism of the team on Twit­ter, where he has 2.1 mil­lion fol­low­ers, writ­ing, “He never gave up on me. We’re a tight group and will fin­ish to­gether.”

“Maybe Twit­ter ain’t the place to be draw­ing at­ten­tion to things like that,” Earn­hardt said. “You just hear enough chat­ter over the course of a long pe­riod of time. It wasn’t some­thing that just hap­pened that par­tic­u­lar week­end. Some­times you feel like you’ve got to stand up for your guys. At least let Greg know, it’s not OK I guess, to be a fan, then dog the crew.”

Earn­hardt’s fi­nal sea­son at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports has been more dud than dom­i­nant, and Indy was the fifth time this sea­son he has crashed out of a race. Earn­hardt has just four top-10 fin­ishes and is 22nd in the stand­ings — his worst full-sea­son per­for­mance since 2009. He’ll need to win one of the next six races to end his Cup ca­reer with any shot at rac­ing in NASCAR’s post-sea­son and win­ning his first cham­pi­onship.

Earn­hardt says he’s healthy and isn’t fo­cused on his shift into the NBC Sports broad­cast booth next sea­son. Earn­hardt said ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan af­ter he de­cided to leave rac­ing.

“I think that’s what they hired me for, was to be my­self and give my point of view,” he said.

And his point of view this week? Fans — and yes, the me­dia, too — need to pump the breaks on point­ing fingers in Earn­hardt’s woe­ful sea­son.

“We’ve had some pretty dif­fi­cult re­sults and had a lot of op­por­tu­nity to be frus­trated and mis­er­able,” he said. “But I don’t want this sea­son to be re­mem­bered by my crew chief, my­self and my guys as a mis­er­able, mis­er­able time. The fans have an in­flu­ence on that. They can def­i­nitely ease up a bit on Greg.”

Earn­hardt spoke at a Goodyear tire test at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, an­swer­ing ques­tions for nearly a half-hour. He is off this week­end to Po­cono Race­way, where he swept two races in 2014. There’s lit­tle time to worry about the Brick­yard.

“I’ve had a lot of bad fin­ishes in my ca­reer,” he said. “But I can’t re­mem­ber any­thing about those and I prob­a­bly won’t re­mem­ber much about this sea­son, a cou­ple years.”

But the 42-year-old Earn­hardt is ex­cited about his fu­ture at NBC. The agree­ment with NBCUniver­sal an­nounced Mon­day will al­low Earn­hardt to pur­sue “a wide range of op­por­tu­ni­ties in the com­pany’s me­dia busi­nesses, in­clud­ing movies, tele­vi­sion, pod­casts, and other ar­eas” in­clud­ing football and per­haps even the Olympics.

He will watch next sea­son with a head­set as Ives tries to steer re­place­ment Alex Bow­man to bet­ter days in the 88. Asked if he had any sec­ond thoughts about re­tire­ment, Earn­hardt was quick to say no. He sim­ply wants to get back to rac­ing.

“It’s easy to fo­cus on the race; it’s hard to fo­cus on the dis­trac­tions,” he said. “There are re­spon­si­bil­i­ties out­side the car. There’s a lot more this year. It seems like they’ve al­ways kind of es­ca­lated each year. It’s harder to fo­cus on that stuff. That stuff does de­serve some time and en­ergy. It’s a lit­tle harder to do that and do it right be­cause you want to make sure the rac­ing is get­ting ev­ery­thing it needs.”

CHUCK BUR­TON, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. talks with crew chief Greg Ives dur­ing prac­tice for a NASCAR Cup se­ries auto race at the Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way in May.

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