Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday April 25, 2008
For most drivers and their fans, 17 wins in 299 starts would be a great number. Finishing in the Top 10 in nearly half of those starts—43%—would be enough. But when it’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his legions of diehard fans, it’s good—but not good enough. It’s no secret Earnhardt, Jr. wants to follow in his father’s footsteps with a championship or several, and to that end, he made what must have been a heart-rending decision to leave the team his father started for him and head for the greener pastures of Hendrick Motorsports.
And he took his crew chief with him when he left.
That’s not a surprise—Rick Hendrick has always listened to his drivers when it comes to crew chiefs—-Jeff Gordon originally came to HMS because his then owner, Bill Davis, would not let Gordon bring crew chief Ray Evernham on board. So Gordon signed with Hendrick, and well, we know how that worked out. Jimmie Johnson has had a sometimes tumultuous relationship with Chad Knaus, but Hendrick has always listened to his wishes and helped keep the back-to-back Sprint Cup champion and his fearless leader together. Tony Eury, Jr. is Earnhardt, Jr.’s first cousin as well as his crew chief, and has been with Junior for his entire career, first as car chief, then, since the 2006 season, as his crew chief. It’s no surprise that Eury, Jr. came along for the ride.
But maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t have.
Since Eury, Jr. took over as full-time crew chief for Earnhardt, Jr. in late 2005, there has been just one points-paying win. There have been 22 Top 5 finishes, and 38 Top 10 runs. In 90 races, that’s a Top 10 percentage of 42%—not far below Earnhardt, Jr.’s career total in that category, but the real attention grabber is the win total.
It isn’t that Junior is a bad driver—he’s easily in the top six or seven in the garage as far as talent goes, and less talented drivers have won championships. It isn’t that Eury, Jr. is a bad crew chief, either. Chad Knaus, perhaps the best head wrench in NASCAR, praised his brains and ability earlier this year. It’s just, well, communication. Jimmie Johnson commented earlier that Junior has an outstanding ability to communicate how his car is feeling. And he does—early in a race, or as long as the car is going forward.
Then things sometimes fall apart. Perhaps the closeness between the cousins who have grown up together is more a hindrance than a help. It’s easy to lapse from a professional relationship to a personal one, especially when you’ve had the latter for more than 30 years and the former for not quite three. Earnhardt, Jr. is an emotional driver—a good trait, because he cares a lot if he wins. Eury, Jr., however, is not always a good babysitter. Instead of telling Junior it’ll be alright, they’ll fix it on a pit stop, that his lap times are good, that Junior’s line is perfect, Eury, Jr. has a tendency to push back. And more often than not, it’s downhill from there.
One need look no further than across the parking lot at HMS to see the polar opposite. Personality-wise, Jimmie Johnson is, if anything, even more high-strung than Junior. Johnson is a highly emotional driver, and, like Junior, gets antsy and then gets upset if he’s having trouble with the handling going away. The difference, the reason why Johnson overcomes adversity like nobody else, is in the way Knaus handles him—everything from soothing to mollycoddling to outright lying if the situation warrants. And Johnson has absolute trust in Knaus to steer him the right way, to fix the issue and get him to the front. More often than not, Knaus does.
Johnson and Knaus win because they have the best communication in the garage, bar none. They are friends away from the track, but they are vastly different, and are able to use that to their advantage in their working relationship. Theirs was, in reality, a working relationship first.
And that is probably the difference. The Juniors, Earnhardt and Eury, are family first. The working relationship sometimes takes a backseat to that, and when it does, the races fall apart. Junior has been the most consistent racer at HMS this year—he’s ahead of Johnson in points—but he hasn’t won a points race. That is likely to change on Sunday, but the fact remains that there aren’t many trophies in the collective case of Eury, Jr. and Earnhardt, Jr. And that, unfortunately, may not change.
I’m not suggesting Hendrick move Knaus to the No. 88—that would create far more problems than it could hope to solve. But consider that Darian Grubb won three races in a year plus four races as a crew chief at HMS—twice in with Johnson during one of Knaus’ annual suspensions, and one with Casey Mears. Grubb handled Johnson well—and he would handle Earnhardt well, too. Eury is an excellent crew chief. He’d do well with someone who wouldn’t take things personally.
Earnhardt, Jr. has already made what should have been the most difficult decision of his career. The decision he has to make now should trump even that one in the difficulty department. But to win the multiple championships he wants so badly, Junior should have come to HMS with a clean slate. He chose the familiar amid all the change, and that’s understandable. His loyalty is commendable, to be sure. But Junior is hungry for more. The slate is waiting. It needs to be wiped clean in order to make room for a championship formula.
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