BROOKLYN, Mich. - It's been a long, eventful year since Dale Earnhardt Jr. last visited Victory Lane in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
When Junior squeezed the last drop of gas out of his tank to win at Michigan International Speedway last June, it appeared the victory might provide the turnaround he and his Hendrick Motorsports team were seeking.
Instead, the struggles have continued for stock car racing's most popular driver, leading team owner Rick Hendrick to finally decide last month to replace crew chief Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew on the No. 88 Chevrolet.
It was a blow for Earnhardt to lose his cousin and longtime friend, but the chemistry between the driver and his new crew chief was almost instantaneous.
'The communication seems to be going good and I hope to be realizing some success from it soon,' Earnhardt said Friday after the first practice on the 2-mile oval.
So far, the new combination has produced finishes of 12th at Dover and 27th at Pocono. Earnhardt is 20th in the season points - eight positions outside the postseason Chase - heading into today's LifeLock 400, the 15th of 26 races in the Cup regular season.
That doesn't leave much time to get things going in the right direction.
But Earnhardt said things are really looking up, particularly in team morale.
'The team was really beat down over the last several months and that's gotten better,' Earnhardt said. 'That affects me and affects everybody. We just really want to see some results and things like that in the next couple of weeks to give us an assertion we need to move forward and keep improving. I think we will."
Earnhardt was pleased with the way No. 88 ran at Dover and attributed the poor finish at Pocono to a broken suspension part.
McGrew, who came out of relative obscurity within the huge Hendrick juggernaut that also fields cars for three-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon and longtime Cup star Mark Martin, appears to be comfortable in his new high-visibility role.
'I like what I've seen with Junior,' McGrew said. 'He's easy to work with and he has a real good sense of what the car is doing, what it needs and how to communicate that to us.'
Earnhardt likes what he has seen from McGrew, too.
'Lance is doing a great job,' Junior said. 'All of the other guys on the road crew have stepped up and what that means to me is, when I come in here and I can see the different disposition on everyone's face, I'm more positive about what kind of lap time I'm going to get ready to run in the car.'