EGR NOT READY TO FRET ABOUT SLOW START
Corey McCartney, SI.com
It has been a trying season, to say the least, for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- as Steve Hmiel, the teams' director of competition, jokes "We prescribe Valium at the door."
Two of the past three races have been emblematic of the organization's frustrations. Last weekend at Pocono, Juan Pablo Montoya looked poised to challenge for EGR's first victory of the season. He led three times for 38 laps, but a two-tire call a little past halfway through the race proved costly as he quickly gave up the lead as his chasers opted for four tires. He moved back up to second, but wound up settling for seventh after he lost the transmission with 17 laps remaining.
Two weeks before that, Jamie McMurray took over the top spot in Charlotte and led five laps before he blew an engine on Lap 181. It was the sixth failure of the season for Earnhardt-Childress Racing-built engines.
"In this business, you can't let the highs be too high; we had a great year last year with Jamie and won a race with Juan," Hmiel said. "But you can't be real emotional, because when you're down you can't get real emotional either."
Earnhardt Ganassi didn't qualify a driver for the Chase in 2010, but reached Victory Lane four times, with McMurray winning three races. It raised the stakes for the team's second season with the McMurray/Montoya lineup, but so far EGR hasn't been able to deliver.
Montoya was third in the Sprint Cup Series point standings after three races, but fell out of the top-10 after he averaged a 22.2 finish over a seven-week stretch. Last weekend in Pennsylvania marked the first time he had cracked the top-10 since April 3. McMurray has shown flashes, claiming the pole at Martinsville and finishing seventh; he was ninth at Darlington. But in the other 12 races, his average finish has been 25.3. He's 29th in points.
But while it tries to work through those struggles, Earnhardt Ganassi doesn't have to look very far to find inspiration. A mere 1.6 miles from the team's Concord, N.C., headquarters is Roush Fenway Racing, a team that has dealt with its own troubles only to bounce back in a big way.
"This time last year everyone thought Roush was dead and buried, and three years ago, nobody could beat Roush. Now the Roush cars are really good again," Hmiel said. "They suffered and now they're having a great 2011 and all they really did was take apart everything and make damn sure what they were sure about, what they were correct about. Anything they had a question about they took everything apart and looked at it and they fixed it. That's all you can really do."
That's why they're not about to change how things are done at Earnhardt Ganassi. A rocky first half of the season isn't cause to ditch their extensive notes or make uncharacteristic changes in setups.
"We haven't said, 'Everything we thought we know, we don't know,'" Hmiel said. "We are questioning everything we were sure about to make sure we're sure about it. We're moving forward with simulation, seven-post [shakers], aerotech, things of that nature. We're not trying to find who's the bad guy who dropped the ball. We're not looking to find who got us in this bad luck situation, who's not wearing the same boxer shorts they had on this time last year or whatever. We're just like 'look man, don't go crazy.'"
Hmiel, who helped Richard Petty win titles in 1975 and '79 as crew chief, knows all too well there's only so much you can control. It's a lesson he learned from working with The King. Losing third gear in a transmission? "Do you draw and quarter the transmission guy? No, it's just one of those deals," he said. An engine failure? "You can't go scream at Richard Childress [who supplies the engines through Earnhardt-Childress]; he didn't mean to break a motor," Hmiel quips.
Last season, the Racing Gods were most certainly in Earnhardt Ganassi's corner. If there had been one less caution in the Daytona 500, it might have been Greg Biffle, and not McMurray, in Victory Lane. If McMurray hadn't edged Kevin Harvick going into Turn 1 on the last lap in Indianapolis, Harvick, and not McMurray, may have won. This year, the track deities simply seemed to have turned on EGR.
"Racing gives and it takes away, for sure," Hmiel said. "You have to be mature enough, or experienced enough, to say 'Ah, you'll have that. But we were running well at the time.' Maybe we're headed in the right direction. We're not sure we're running in the right direction, the only way we'll know is if we start running out front in races all the time.
"To put it all on luck? Nah. But there are circumstances in this business that change things. We know we had a great year last year and we were very nervous this winter that the world expected us to repeat that and do more. We've come out and been nowhere near where we were. We just have to remind people of how close we are to being as good as we were last year and keep our heads down and just keep working."