Good Intentions Gone Wrong: The Dale Earnhardt and Larry McReynolds Combination
During the winter of 1996-'97, it looked like racing had formed its greatest pairing at last. It just made sense on paper and the results were surely going to be there for one of NASCAR's greatest drivers and one of the sport's successful crew chiefs.
Right after the 1996 NASCAR Banquet in New York City, the stock car world saw Larry McReynolds, who was a long-time Robert Yates Racing employee, join the rival Richard Childress Racing faction as the newest crew chief for Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet team.
Immediately, folks in the garage area began talking about Earnhardt's bid for that elusive eighth championship in 1997. And why not?
McReynolds brought his 22 Cup victories along with 103 top-five finishes, 153 top-10's, and 16 poles to the Earnhardt camp, which struggled somewhat down the stretch in '96.
Earnhardt was still a very aggressive, cagy veteran with the will to win, even after this grinding accident during the Talladega race that left him bruised and injured with a broken collar bone, sternum, and shoulder blade.
As for McReynolds, he was a bit like Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills - crafty, skillful, but always coming up short in his quest to capture that championship.
Certainly, it wasn't for lack of effort at all, as the Birmingham, AL native would push his driver and team to their potential in winning it all as a respectable force on the track.
One glance at the Earnhardt-McReynolds pairing and wins and championships looked like they'd be coming in as quickly as fans lining up at the souvenir rigs at each race.
Instead, it was a combination that didn't produce for inexplicable reasons.
Sure, a majority of the field would be happy to have a crew chief who'd lead them to a top-10 points finish, but for Earnhardt and his No. 3 team, they went from weekly contenders to a team that looked lost at times.
After all, McReynolds was joining a team that had won six Cup titles, including five championships int he past seven years. Success was supposed to happen, although not given away like a sample of Sun Drop or an autograph at the races.
Instead, they ran respectably, but Earnhardt's rapport with McReynolds wasn't anything like his chemistry with Kirk Shelmerdine or Andy Petree, who both led "The Man In Black" to six of his seven Cup crowns.
To Earnhardt's and McReynolds' defense, this was during the dominant Jeff Gordon championship seasons of 1997-'98, and even the best weren't able to keep up with the No. 24 team's amazing streak and luck on the track.
Additionally, the Ford teams had simply caught up to the General Motors racing camps of Chevrolet and Pontiac, especially with Robert Yates' No. 88 team led by racer Dale Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott as well as the Roush Racing efforts of Mark Martin and Jimmy Fennig.
For starters, Earnhardt, who wasn't an exceptional qualifier, didn't have the cars that would roar up to the front of the pack to contend for victories.
Save for restrictor plate races, at venues like Rockingham, Darlington, and Bristol, the No. 3 car struggled to get a grip on the handle.
Some fans and critics felt that Earnhardt's best days were behind him, as the Talladega crash in July of '96 diminished his confidence and abilities to be "The Intimidator." Yes, he was wounded and battered, but there was still plenty of fight left in the pride of Kannapolis, NC.
McReynolds wasn't a terrible crew chief either, as he was able to lead Earnhardt to Victory Lane at Daytona in 1998, which was arguably one of the most popular moments in motorsports history. It certainly takes some talent and brilliance to win at "The World Center of Racing," and that year's Daytona 500 symbolized their greatness.
Following the Richmond race of June of '98, team owner Richard Childress ended the McReynolds-Earnhardt pairing, essentially trading crew chiefs in his organization. Teammate Mike Skinner would work with McReynolds for the next two and a half seasons.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt's new crew chief was Kevin Hamlin, who slowly but surely rebuilt the swagger and confidence of the No. 3 camp.
Racing can be a tricky proposition in which the best things on paper and record sometimes don't produce the best results on the track.
Although Earnhardt went on to capture five more wins, 33 top-fives, and 54 top-10's before losing his life in the 2001 Daytona 500, chemistry proved to be key with his success during the races.
Don't feel too badly for Larry McReynolds, as he closed out his Cup crew chief career with Skinner to the tune of a 10th and 12th-place finishing results in the 1999-'00 Cup points standings. Not too shabby for a guy who then retired and has become a TV and social media fixture as a commentator for FOX Sports, TNT, and SPEED's coverage of NASCAR.
Author's Note: The next edition of "Good Intentions Gone Wrong," we'll look at the Robby Gordon-Felix Sabates pairing of late 1996-'97 that took the racing world by surprise - for almost every conceivable reason in the book.