Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he has noticed a change in the culture at the Hendrick Motorsports race shop his #88 team shares with the #5 of Mark Martin - and that my bode well for improved performance in 2010.

From Earnhardt's point of view, the catalyst for the change was the naming of Lance McGrew as his full-time crew chief at the end of the 2009 season. In May,

McGrew had replaced Earnhardt's cousin, Tony Eury Jr., as interim crew chief.

"When he (McGrew) was able to solidify his position, and we could move forward knowing this was the deal - this is how it is - everybody sort of wrapped their minds and beliefs and trusts into that and around that, and we could sort of build back some confidence and some trust and belief in the team," Earnhardt said Friday night at the Preseason Thunder Fan Fest at Daytona International Speedway.

A shifting of in-shop personnel has created a greater sense of cooperation between the two teams.

"When I say the culture, that's kind of what I mean, in the two cars and the people that are really intertwined between the two teams - kind of getting them all working and believing again in the #88 is what I think has changed a lot," Earnhardt said.

Martin, who finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings last year, doesn't think Earnhardt's performance needs to improve that much, if he can reverse the ill fortune that derailed promising runs in a number of races last year.

"If they only make minor progress in the performance side, and they have the opposite kind of racing luck that they had, they will have a Chase-making and very, very, very respectable season," Martin said. "In other words, they don't have to make a huge jump in performance, if they can just get that monkey off their back.

"They ran better than the #5 car in numerous races, but nobody really noticed, because they got wrecked, or something broke. They had a lot of things happen and go wrong for them when they were faster than we were in the #5 car."

Team-mate Jeff Gordon believes confidence is the key to a turnaround for Earnhardt, who enters the season on a 57-race winless streak.

"It doesn't take much to get off track," Gordon said. "I mean, it's so competitive out there. And I know that sometimes it looks like they're way off, but I don't think they're off as far as people think. I think it just is going to a take a fresh start - a few things.

"The organisation puts so much effort into every team and every car that the ingredients are certainly there. I think that probably what's left is just to get that confidence up. It happens with everybody. If the driver is confident, then the crew chief is confident, and if the crew chief is confident, the pit crew is confident. It just trickles all the way down.

"Hopefully, all the hard work they're putting in over the offseason will help them get started off in the right foot and be able to not break the confidence down too early - because once you get it broke down, it's hard to get it back."

Earnhardt understands how important it is to his fans for him to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In three of the last five seasons, he has fallen short of that goal.

"When I miss the Chase, I feel like I've let them down," Earnhardt said. "They put up a fight with you all year long. They fight every week right there with you. They argue their way through every day of work with somebody who's pulling against you. So they fight their own battles just like I do out on the racetrack.

"So, yeah, you feel like you have let them down when you don't make the Chase at least. I mean - damn! - you hope to make the Chase. That's not really asking a terrible amount from your drivers. So you feel pretty bad. I think that's the thing that bothers me the most out of having a disappointing year."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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