De­spite is­sues, Jr. de­fends crew chief

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FOOTBALL/MOTOR SPORTS -

DOVER, Del. — Dale Earn­hardt Jr. has long reigned as NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver. But he thinks too many of his fans have started air­ing in 140-char­ac­ter bursts a most un­pop­u­lar opin­ion — 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. They’ve all had to deal with crit­i­cism.”

Ives, in his third sea­son with Earn­hardt, was crit­i­cized dur­ing the Brick­yard 400 for his de­ci­sion to send Earn­hardt to the pits — even though he 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 that cost him sev­eral spots in the field.

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 Mon­ster En­ergy Cup 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 post­sea­son and win­ning his first championship.

Earn­hardt said 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 and con­tin­ued for sev­eral months be­fore the two sides agreed to the deal in the past few days.

“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 the me­dia — 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 and re­al­ize that he’s ex­tremely tal­ented. He’s in that po­si­tion for a rea­son.”

Earn­hardt, who spoke at a Goodyear tire test at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, is rac­ing 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 down the road. What hap­pened in Indy will be long for­got­ten. I try not to dwell on it too much like I used to. I used to let it eat me alive un­til we got back to the track.”

Earn­hardt, 42, said he 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.

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