There's good news and bad news for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No. 88 team at Hendrick Motorsports.
The driver is still as popular as ever, but that creates a lot of fan backlash when the team, directed by crew chief Greg Ives, hits the skids.
For now, Ives' job at Hendrick Motorsports appears to be safe, despite the recent outcry from Earnhardt Nation. Given Ives' record, it would be a shame to let fans call the shots at this point in the season. Looking back, Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus were at odds early in their careers before going on to win six Sprint Cup championships for Hendrick Motorsports.
For now, NASCAR's most popular driver has hit a rough patch that has included a garden variety of setbacks on the track. Then Earnhardt Jr. singled out a lack of speed prior to the All-Star Race in Charlotte, citing the need for better communication with Ives prior to races and during races.
He finished third in the All-Star race, then fell to next-to-last on the lead lap in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Sunday. But Earnhardt, Jr.'s post-race comments indicated that he and his crew chief are working overtime on the issue of communication. The driver said his car had the speed versus others during the early portions of the marathon race. The effort, he said, was sundered by the track's narrow groove at night that took away the driver's preferred high line and by the bad luck of getting caught on pit road when a debris flag waved.
"The car didn't show the gains we all wanted to see," he said on his Dirty Mo Racing podcast, "but there's some gains and I am confident we're heading in the right direction."
The Coca-Cola 600 effort did not start well. Once again, the No. 88 Chevy was behind on speed in the opening session. "We weren't good when we unloaded and we never really got better, not good enough to make the next round (of qualifying) I guess," said Earnhardt, Jr. "Qualifying has been rough on us all year and we showed up pretty far off. Just real hard to get it dialed in there."
After qualifying 25th, Ives spent the evening at Earnhardt, Jr.'s house and stayed until midnight to work on better communication with his driver. That was one of the changes that the driver wanted to see. "Me and Greg have re-confirmed our commitment to each other," said Earnhardt, Jr. adding that they "are doing what we need to do to get better."
Hanging in the balance is a return to the Chase. During the five-race rough patch that started at Richmond, Earnhardt, Jr. has not been a contender to win - even at the Talladega Superspeedway - and has fallen from fourth in the points to 13th. With 13 races remaining, he's in the territory where anything can happen to those trying to fill the final positions of the 16-driver postseason on points.
Compared to his rookie teammate Chase Elliott, Earnhardt Jr. - who has scored three second-place finishes this year in Atlanta, Texas and Bristol - has fewer Top 10 finishes. Elliott has eight and Earnhardt, Jr. five. Teammate Jimmie Johnson has led seven of the 13 races en route to two victories. Elliott has led in four races and Earnhardt, Jr. has led in just two races for a total of 49 laps.
Team owner Rick Hendrick has changed Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief in mid-season previously, but Ives' record with the team makes that seem unlikely. Ives has been nothing but a winner since first joining Hendrick Motorsports as a mechanic on the cars of Jeff Gordon. He was the engineer on the cars of Johnson during his streak of five straight championships in 2006 through 2010. In his debut season as a crew chief for the JR Motorsports team, he guided Regan Smith to two victories and the team was third in the Xfinity Series championship. When Elliott won the Xfinity title as a rookie with three victories in 2014, it was Ives calling the shots on the war wagon.
Last year, Ives led Earnhardt, Jr.'s squad to three victories and narrowly missed advancing to he semi-final round in the Chase during the crazy finish at Talladega.
The garden variety of problems this year include Earnhardt Jr.'s strange spin in the draft at Talladega - followed by a second accident where he was taken out by another driver's error. In Kansas, a loose lug nut cost the team track position at the end of the race and what might have been a Top 10 finish. Earnhardt, Jr. was involved in another accident at Dover. He finished third in the All-Star Race, but when the team unloaded for the 600 five days later, the speed was off.
Previously, Earnhardt, Jr. felt that if the team fell behind it could always salvage a Top 10. But the recent dominance of Martin Truex, Jr. at Charlotte, he said, shows the Hendrick teams are behind. "Whenever someone kind of finds a couple tenths on the field or an advantage that no one else has, such as (Truex, Jr.) or the way the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) cars have run since the beginning of the year, I'm confident that Hendrick Motorsports has enough guys to science it out and understand where their speed is," he said during a tire test this week at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"The good thing about it is, in the garage secrets don't last for long because it's such a small area and everybody is working on top of each other," he continued. "When you figure out someone's idea, you have enough smart people to take that idea and make it your own and improve it. If you look at the season when Brad Keselowski won the championship, Hendrick cars were dominating the whole year. We had an advantage on the competition all the way up to the Chase. Brad and those guys figured out some of the things we had going on, they took it in-house and they beat us. I think the same thing kind of happened with the Gibbs cars last year."
It's not as if Ives isn't pushing the envelope and trying to incorporate new developments on the No. 88 Chevys. The team has failed inspection at four races this season and lost its pit stall selection prior to the 600, which is the standard penalty after four warnings from NASCAR.
Earnhardt, Jr., said he's looking forward to this summer's racing, particularly at the tracks he likes upcoming on the schedule - the Pocono International Raceway on Sunday and the Michigan International Speedway the following week.
But there's no doubt the pressure is on for him and his crew chief if they expect to make the Chase a second straight year together.