The Frontstretch: For Junior, Does Fun Trump Having It All? by Amy Henderson -- Friday March 27, 2009

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For Junior, Does Fun Trump Having It All?

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday March 27, 2009


At the top level of NASCAR, there are so many factors to consider every week. There are sponsors to please, fans to appease, and an owner to answer to. Your job is to try to win races and ultimately the championship. And that’s not just at the top. Don’t think for a second that that is any less Robby Gordon’s goal than it is Jeff Gordon’s, because no matter how lacking the equipment might be, racers race to win, to get the best finish within their power, to bring home the highest points position they can claw their way into. Racing should never stop being fun, and as Ken Schrader said, when it stops being fun, it’s time to retire. But that doesn’t mean that fun can be the top priority anymore.

I always liked that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the person he is. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not, and he’s always had fun, because he surrounds himself with people he has fun with. The problem is, it seems to be more about the fun than the drive to win.

It might be fun, but at this level, it’s not a game.

As the ground swells to rocking with the call for a new crew chief for Earnhardt, Jr., the driver continues to defend his choice of Tony Eury, Jr., even taking the lion’s share of the blame for the No. 88’s poor showing onto his own shoulders. That’s admirable, because Tony Eury, Jr. is family, and he and Earnhardt, Jr. grew up together. It’s also not what Rick Hendrick is paying for.

Amid the deluge of criticism of Eury, Earnhardt has stood firmly pat. He has said that he doesn’t worry about whether he and Eury are “the perfect combination or not, that doesn’t mean anything to me. I just like racing with him.” In other words, to Earnhardt, it’s more about having fun than winning. And it all comes back to the fact that at this level, that is simply not how it works. There is simply too much at stake.

I feel badly for both of the Juniors. Is Eury really the problem, the reason for the lack of success? Well, he is, and he isn’t. He is in that he doesn’t command Earnhardt’s respect—he allows his cousin to walk over him at times, and when the communication breaks down as a result, performance suffers. It’s hard to tell if Eury can’t keep up with the car on a changing track or simply can’t keep up with his cousin.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. recently made comments to the media that leave many wondering if he cares more about having fun than winning races.

On the other hand, it’s not entirely in Eury’s lap. Earnhardt is under tremendous pressure from all sides, probably including his own, truth be told. He’s being asked to live up to something he can’t. Junior is a good driver, better than many. But he’s not a great driver. It’s unfair to compare him to Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or especially his late father, because he isn’t that kind of driver. His fans want him to be, and so do his sponsors. But wanting does not make it so. The bottom line is, while Junior is a legitimate top-12 driver, he’s not championship caliber.

I’m not saying he has to be championship caliber, and just because he isn’t right now doesn’t mean he couldn’t be if paired in a more productive crew chief relationship. That kind of thing is hard to speculate on, but there are reasons to back it up—mainly Junior’s own record with Tony Eury, Sr., who he has all but two of his points wins with. It’s not just that “Pops” was a good crew chief, it was that there was a whole different level of respect there. In those days, there were flashes of a better, more disciplined driver in Earnhardt, as well as of a brilliant mechanic in his car chief, Eury, Jr.

I have no doubt that Eury, Jr. has the ability to be a top wrench, because, simply put, Rick Hendrick doesn’t hire hacks. Chad Knaus, perhaps the most brilliant crew chief in Sprint Cup today and a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has had nothing but praise for Eury’s skill.

So, they both show promise, and frankly, they do show more of it apart than together. But they have fun together, and that’s what it seems to boil down to for Earnhardt, Jr. If that’s all he is looking for, then perhaps the highly driven HMS isn’t as good a fit for him as it first appeared. Heck, perhaps the Cup series isn’t. Because while racers should love racing, they should also strive to be at the top of the mountain—even if their longtime friend can’t make it and has to stop shy of the summit. Maybe that friend could even make the summit on his own.

But to me, this is make or break time. For Earnhardt, time grows shorter and shorter to make a championship bid. If he is willing to give that up, then perhaps Rick Hendrick made the wrong call. He’s got three drivers in his stable right now who are all desperate to win the title this year, and all willing to do whatever it takes to get there. And he’s got one driver who would rather have fun, when push really comes to shove. To be a top team, you need every person in that shop focused on the goal that is to be the best of them all. They can have fun doing it, but when fun gets in the way of the goal, the whole team suffers in the end. That’s a concept that has never seemed to fit in at HMS—even the underperforming Casey Mears has that singular goal.

It reminds me of that game we played as kids, with the obnoxious song-“One of these things is not like the others.” In this case, one of them is not like the others, nor does he fit the mold of his organization or of most of his sport. I’ve always admired Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for not fitting the mold. But this mold is one he can’t afford to avoid. If the desire isn’t there, that’s not the end of the world. But maybe if that’s truly the case, the two Juniors are better suited for a different world, one where the stakes aren’t quite so high. They would have more fun, and if that is what they really want, it would be, in the end, a good thing.

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Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
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Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Stu Gatz
03/27/2009 07:30 AM

Amy, you have never been one to hide your feelings for your “Favorite” Drivers.
Dale Jr never asked to be his Father, He is his own Man. Like it or not he is who he is. Jr did something this year that no other Driver would have the guts to do. He stepped back to let Mark Martin have the shot. In all Multiple Team race shops one team is the R+D car… Allways!!, The 5 car has been the R+D car at Hendrick ever since Jeff Bodine stepped out and turned the car over to Terry Labonte.
Name me one other driver that would put a whole season aside to let an other Driver have a shot at the title???
Dale and his team are doing excactly what Mr Hedrick want them to… Experimant with shock settups, experiment with engine and transmission combinations. To make the whole orginization run better. Not to win races, Dale Jr is doing a Yoemans job right now. Jr is the only driver secure enough in his position to bow gracefully aside to let another driver have his shot.
Would either of the Busch Brothers do this???
You didn’t seem to mind when Jeff Gordon stepped aside to let JJ have his shots at the titles.
But since it’s Jr. the media feels its OK to take thier shots at him.
I’ll tell you this when the time comes for Jr and Kyle Busch to stand before the judgment seat…. I know which one will be told. “Well done my good and faithfull servant”.
Lets see if you have the honor to let this post remain up…

03/27/2009 07:49 AM

Stu, I hardly know where to start.

First off, the whole notion that one car in multi-team shops is an “R&D” car and therefore must run poorly is a load of rubbish. Explain to me how Roush put five cars in the Chase in 2005 and RCR put all three in in 2007…if one of them MUST be an R&D car.

Secondly, perhaps you could explain why of all of his four drivers to be the “R&D” car, Rick Hendrick would choose the most popular driver on his team.

Third, if the 5 car has been an “R&D car” since the days of Terry Labonte, then that would include Kyle Busch’s tenure at Hendrick, which not only shoots down your suggestion that “the Busch brothers would never do this”, but also would indicate that Kyle is a hell of a lot better than Junior at making subpar equipment run well.

I like Junior and I don’t question his motivation. But to say that he isn’t winning because Hendrick wants NASCAR’s biggest icon to test shocks is absolutely absurd.

03/27/2009 08:46 AM

I’m not a Jr. fan but I feel bad for him. He’s in an impossible situation. He has all the money in the world but cannot do anything normal people do because of his fame. If he devotes himself totally to racing, he will miss out on the enjoyment of the rest life has to give. If he does things that are fun, he will make the racing world mad if he is not in the championship hunt.

I would not be surprised if he decided to retire early and try to have a normal life (which will be impossible). He will be considered a failure by many if he does not win a championship and even if he did, others would consider it a failure if he didn’t win several.

03/27/2009 08:50 AM

I have to wonder of” having fun” wasn’t taken out of context. There have been many studies done that show if you are in a job and not having fun you are not going to be as successful as if you were having fun. and enjoying what you do. Imagine getting up every day and going to a job you don’t like; eventually you end up with stress, ulcers and generally hating yourself and everyone around you, Now if you were in JR’s shoes; a job that is a high stress fishbowl with an skyhigh amount of mental and physical stress with super high expectations. Mg God, Amy, could you imagine doing what he does every day if he couldn’t look at it as “Fun?” Most people would be running in the other direction as fast as they could.

03/27/2009 11:07 AM

First off I’m not a Jr. fan. But sometimes I feel for the guy. If one thing both Kyle Busch and Junior share is that both don´t hold back their emotions. If the car sucks, both of them will tell you the car sucks. Recently, both have laid the boom on their crews for poor pit stops. But it was true in both cases. Both of them like to have fun at what they do. Kyle races trucks for free. In Junior’s case “FUN” was taken out of context. What ever happen to honesty and just tell it like it is. Junior and Kyle are the only two drivers that speak their minds, and show their emotions more power to the both of them.

In Junior’s case, when Rick Hendrick hired Jr. he saw $$$$ not wins. Hendrick already has a winning shop #48/#24 and yes Hendrick has always had the R&D shop #5, #25. Look which roof the #88 is under. It’s not so hard to figure out. All of the Roush, Gibbs and Childress cars are much closer together. You will see equipment failures from their flagship cars of #99, #18 or #29. But compare the mechanical failures of #48 or #24 vis-à-vis the #5 or #88.

Kyle Busch really has to thank Rick Hendrick for his recent success. Otherwise, well you get the point. I suggest Junior, tell Rick Hendrick he wants the #88 prepared in the “other building” and see how he reacts.

03/27/2009 11:10 AM

Great Article, I couldn’t agree with you more!!

03/27/2009 12:53 PM

First “Stu”

Gordon81wins hit the nail right on the head.

Your post is just another in a long line of posts from Jr. apologists trying to justify his poor showing and results. Oh yeah, I thought the 25 was the “R&D”, not the 5 car.

Could it be that Theresa Earnhardt had it correct when she said, “Dale Jr. needs to decide on whether he wants to be a race car driver or a celebrity.

03/27/2009 05:11 PM

I challenge Stu Gatz to provide solid proof that Dale jr is the research car for the team. Unless they are providing data on how not to work together or how not to win. I am tired of Junior nation apologists making excuses for their boy. I think darn near everyone likes Dale Jr. the person as an individual, I mean what’s not to like? But that’s not what racing and championships are built on. People still treat Jr. like he’s a little child and his daddy just died and we all still need to treat the guy with kid gloves and allow mistakes and excuses for the “Great One’s” son. Get over it folks. He was a grown adult when his father died in the profession they both knew was dangerous and chose anyways. Out there on race day it’s not who your daddy was…..You are either spanking the rest of the field and saying “who’s your daddy!” or being spanked and crying daddy…..Maybe Junior needs to decide if he is going to be a moderately fast traveling billboard of mediocrity or if he wants to be a champion- or join his second Daddy in the booth at Fox….Just sayin……..

03/27/2009 06:31 PM

Great article.

I’ve no doubt that Jr. can win….when he WANTS to.

Right now….Kyle wants it more…and the results speak for themselves.

We need more “Kyles” on the track than “drive around” guys.

03/28/2009 01:44 PM

I still think,all 4 cars at hendrick, shoiuld be in the same room, together!!! Not the 24 and 48 in one end of the building, and the 5 and 88 at the other end of the building!! Do all, you fans, really think that the 24 and48 share everything with the 5 and 88? NOT!!!!!
every one, in the garage ,all know what goes on with the 48 car????.as for the 48 and 18 drivers.. can not stand either one of them!!!YES, I AM A DIE-HARD JR. FAN!!

03/28/2009 03:49 PM

Meh, Jr made 30 million dollars last year. I’ll have a comment when I make 1. Seems to be working for him.


Contact Amy Henderson

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