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Switch of crew chiefs paying off
Jim Utter
The Charlotte Observer

Watkins Glen, New York (August 13, 1998)

Two months ago, Richard Childress looked at his two Winston Cup race teams and felt they needed a shakeup.

Drivers Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner were headed to Michigan for the June Miller Lite 400 and both were slumping.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, had failed to qualify on the first day of time trials for eight of the previous nine races heading into Michigan and had posted three top-10 finishes in 12 races since his season-opening win in the Daytona 500.

Skinner, in his second season with Richard Childress Racing, had qualified only twice on the first day of time trials and finished in the top 10 once -- an eighth-place finish at Daytona. Skinner missed three races with injury before returning for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. He then posted finishes of 29th, 27th and 30th before heading to Michigan.

That's when Childress made his move.

And as both drivers prepare to qualify Friday for Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway, it appears Childress' move -- sending Earnhardt's crew chief Larry McReynolds to Skinner's team and Kevin Hamlin, Skinner's crew chief, to Earnhardt's team -- has worked.

Childress said at the time he hoped the crew chiefs' styles would mesh better with the new drivers. It appears they have.

``Maybe it has come a little quicker than we thought it would, but we know this sport and it'll eat you alive,'' said McReynolds. ``We may go to Michigan this week and look like we don't even know what makes a race car roll forward. It's a very humbling sport as we all know, but we just are going to keep doing what we've done the past six or seven races.''

Skinner's turnaround has been remarkable.

He's registered three top five finishes in his past four races, including a fourth-place finish at Indianapolis and a career-best third-place finish at Watkins Glen last weekend. And since the crew chief change, Skinner has qualified in the Top 25 in five of seven races.

Skinner had a solid chance at winning the road course race at Watkins Glen - he led much of the final 20 laps - but needed to conserve fuel at the end. Eventual winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Mark Martin passed Skinner with less than two laps remaining, but he held on to this third-place finish.

``It feels good to get a top-five in Winston Cup. It's the next best thing to winning a race,'' Skinner said. ``If you get enough top fives eventually your day will come. That's what we're hoping for. I'm doing my job the best I can, and I know everybody on the No. 31 team is doing their jobs the best they can.

``Larry and I spend a lot of time together off work. We spend an awful lot of time together. You always look for that chemistry. Larry and I are hitting it off really well. He's become a good friend. If you discipline yourself and try to keep your calm and learn one another good, I think we'll have a lot of success.''

Skinner said he and Hamlin also got along, but thinks Hamlin may be better suited for Earnhardt.

``Kevin and I were great friends. Kevin is a little bit more laid back, which seems to fit better for Dale,'' Skinner said. ``I think the switch that was made is 100 percent better for both teams. Time will tell exactly where it's all going, but I think it's real good right now.''

Earnhardt agrees.

``Putting Kevin with the No. 3 and Larry with the No. 31 has helped both RCR programs,'' said Earnhardt. ``We've made first round qualifying in all but one race since the switch, and we both had top-five finishes at the Brickyard 400.

``I think you'll see the black No. 3 at the front of the field (this weekend).''

Since the move, Earnhardt has not only improved his performances - he's finished 11th or better in five of the past seven races - but he's also become more of a factor in the outcome of races.

He battled Gordon bumper-to-bumper for the lead at the second Pocono race before finishing seventh and he and Skinner finished fourth and fifth respectively at Indianapolis.

McReynolds said he nevered questioned whether Earnhardt was still a competitive driver and believes Childress' move is best for everyone.

``Dale Earnhardt still can and will win races. There is no question in my mind. He's still got the drive, the desire, the ability, all those things that go with winning races,'' McReynolds said. ``I will do, as part of Richard Childress Racing and regardless of what color uniform I wear, everything in my possible power to help him in any way and help that team in any way to help them win races and hopefully play a small part in him winning an eighth championship in the near future.

``I think the swap we made two months ago, it's maybe accomplished other things, but one thing I do feel strongly it has accomplished, it has drawn the two teams working closer together and that includes Mike and Dale,'' McReynolds said. ``I saw it at Indianapolis. Dale Earnhardt saw the 31 car was a little bit better than he was at the end. He raced Ernie (Irvan) hard, but I think he raced him a little bit harder just to help his teammate get a little bit more of an edge to finish where he finished.''