Swap of crew chiefs jump-starts Earnhardt Match of personalities turns teams' fortunes

July 26, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- Car owner Richard Childress looks less worried. His driver, Dale Earnhardt also is looking better, as he finds time to spend with several children who are suffering from cancer. He signs autographs and speaks encouragingly, as he rubs their frail backs.

It is a different picture from a month ago. Oh, the car owner and the driver shook hands and signed autographs, but a month ago it was a duty, crammed into their worried lives and their schedules, bulging with things that had to be done on a struggling race team.

Then Childress, who owns both the Earnhardt team and that of Mike Skinner, decided to make a change. He swapped the two crew chiefs, sending veteran Larry McReynolds to the more inexperienced Skinner team, and putting laid-back Kevin Hamlin with Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

Since then, both teams have dramatically improved and the tension around the teams has dissipated, too.

Earnhardt has stopped struggling in qualifying and made major strides in time trials since the June 8 change.

He'll start ninth in today's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono International Raceway. His finishes also have improved, enabling him to climb from a season-low of 13th to 10th in the Winston Cup points race.

As for Skinner, he had just two top-10 finishes in 13 races until two weeks ago in New Hampshire, where he had his first top-5 finish.

"Larry lets you know if you've done good or bad, and our conversations have brought us closer," said Skinner, who will start his Chevrolet in the 28th spot today. "We spend a lot of time in the evening talking. I think it's added depth and is a real strength for our team. Dale doesn't want a lot of conversation. Kevin is very laid-back. They suit each other, the way Larry and I suit each other."

Earnhardt said he and McReynolds are great friends and denied that McReynolds' penchant for acting as a director during races and his constant dissecting of the team bothered him. But he admits Hamlin's low-key approach suits his own outlook better.

"But I don't think that's the big difference," Earnhardt said. "Larry and Kevin both know their business and they both know the inside workings of each other's team now. I think that is really the difference, that there are no more secrets and much more information is being shared and used to make all of us better."

With as poorly as the teams were performing before the swap, McReynolds said he wouldn't have blamed Childress if he had fired him and Hamlin.

"It would have been the easy thing to do," McReynolds said. "It's what most owners would have done, just let us both go because things were going so bad."

But Childress just wanted to enliven his workers, put them in position to have new ideas. He had tried everything else -- new chassis, different engines and various combinations of each, to no avail. And it had gotten so bad that there were rumors around the garage area that crew chief jobs -- and even Skinner's job -- were on the line. And there were also whispers that Childress had lost interest, that he would rather go on hunting trips to Africa than work in the garage with his race team.

"I'm here," Childress said. "I'm interested. You work hard all your life to get to where you can do some of the things you enjoy. But if me going on a hunting trip is the reason these teams weren't performing, then I haven't done my job very well. I spend a lot of money to get the best people and set up an organization that I hope will be able to go on successfully when I'm gone.

"I don't think the fact that I like to go hunting and fishing once in a while was the problem."

As for jobs on the line, Childress avoided the issue of others and again focused on himself.

"My job was on the line," he said. "My job is always on the line. The bottom line is perform for the sponsors. If we're not performing, we have to evaluate every area. You've got to stay open minded and be willing to change. This was a business decision and I've come to believe that the most important decisions are matching personalities."

After winning the Daytona 500 for the first time in 21 years last February, Earnhardt and McReynolds failed to make the first-day starting lineups in 11 of the next 12 races. The personalities obviously weren't meshing.

"I think it was a situation in which I intimidated The Intimidator," McReynolds said, referring to Earnhardt. "My biggest fault is that I'm overbearing. I keep picking up ballplayer [trading] cards all the time and reading they're all soft-spoken. I try to be that way, but I just can't seem to be. I feel a lot of self-inflicted pressure.

"Dale is the most focused guy I know in the race car, but when he would go out after a qualifying run thinking it would be OK tomorrow, I just couldn't let it go. Kevin is more relaxed and suited to Dale and I can coach Mike and push him along."

Hamlin, a soft-spoken Michigan native, has a simple game plan: make and listen to suggestions.

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