Thomas Bowles · Wednesday September 19, 2012
Did You Notice?… For Dale Earnhardt, Jr., there’s no such thing as a “family business” anymore? Just five years after leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc., getting scorned by stepmother Teresa Earnhardt by his bid for control of the organization Dale Jr. has turned a blind eye to a different set of relatives. Tony Eury, Sr. and Jr., his uncle and cousin respectively have been kicked to the curb from his JR Motorsports operation, a Nationwide Series team that admittedly hasn’t won a race in two-plus seasons but also features a car, the No. 88 solidly inside the top 10 in championship points with rookie Cole Whitt. Add in third-year driver Danica Patrick, 11th in the season standings and it’s not like this organization is the laughingstock of the league. Far from it.
So why make changes? The first move, letting Eury go the beginning of September was surprising enough. The crew chief of Dale Jr.’s Daytona 500 win, in 2004 his uncle is largely credited with guiding the driver through the most successful years of his career.
“I honestly thought he would be there until the place closed down,” Eury Jr. said to the Sporting News shortly after the announcement. “But things don’t happen the way we plan them all the time.”
Less than two weeks later, he’s been handed a pink slip, too, on the outside looking in while former driver Danica Patrick gets paired up with fresh blood in Ryan Pemberton. Patrick, who has struggled this season has a total of five top-10 finishes in 51 career starts. In nearly three years with the organization, she’s led a total of 55 laps, failed to finish 21.5 percent of the time and is still searching for her first podium performance, let alone victory on NASCAR’s second-tier level.
Those numbers apparently weren’t enough to please Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley who “runs” the day-to-day operations while Junior focuses on driving. Of course, the problem here is that in any other situation, the driver would be the one to go and not the crew chief. Kelley knows that all too well; after all, she fired Kelly Bires from the No. 88 car, back in 2010 after collecting just one top-10 result in five races. Whoops; if you’re doing the math at home, that means he was on pace for double the results Danica’s accomplished with just over ten times the patience. Turns out at JR Motorsports, based on the example they just set all you need for driver immunity is breasts and a multi-million dollar internet company calling the shots.
And therein lies JR Motorsports’ problem: the family itself really isn’t calling the shots on their own. Sure, they’ll sit there and tell you this decision is all about preserving the future, kicking a team in the pants that hasn’t won a race since 2010. That’s a load of horse… you know. Earnhardt’s autonomy disappeared the second his team “merged” with Hendrick Motorsports’ operation to begin the 2008 season. Suddenly, the organization became more than a mom ‘n’ pop organization Junior craved, the DEI alternative where family members could keep jobs while trying to keep pace in NASCAR’s second-tier organization as best they could. Instead, they were commissioned as the “farm team” for future HMS drivers, whether it was Brad Keselowski or the once-presumed Jeff Gordon successor in Landon Cassill. As with any local business consumed by a corporate giant, the local bosses kept their jobs but only if profit margins and major sponsors maintained their support. Personal connections define the mom ‘n’ pop organization – that’s what makes it tick. But with big, bloated corporations (of which HMS is one?) you never let feelings cause you to fail to your bottom line.
What other reason is there for a mom ‘n’ pop business, built by family to not weather the ups and downs together? Obviously, times have changed with the arrival of Patrick, who after three years is headed to Stewart-Haas Racing and Sprint Cup full-time beginning in 2013. With millions in endorsements and the belief she can attract a larger audience into the sport, JRM has no choice but to not only employ but develop her as best they can. The biggest asset within the organization is no longer the family that once defined its makeup but the driver signed by a corporation above; Patrick is capable of making her backers millions regardless of on-track performance. Winning is tied to a bank account; if she is unhappy for any reason, or the sponsor dissatisfied with development blood doesn’t get in the way of a business defined by cold, hard cash.
That’s where the Eurys got tripped up. In a corporate environment, the direction Dale Jr. chose they’re considered expendable in the face of the client. Loyalty? There is none in a world where sponsors are becoming increasingly difficult to keep. It’s the latest sign that Earnhardt, when unable to get what he wanted in DEI chose the option of maximum equipment – for him – and minimal responsibility once stepping inside the Hendrick camp.
It was a world his cousins were never completely comfortable with, and now they don’t have to be.
Did You Notice?… Less than 4 million people tuned into the start of this year’s Chase? That’s the lowest audience for any race this season with the exception of Kentucky the end of June. So much for the playoffs driving up numbers and interest; a clear audience deduction at the start of this NFL season remains. Consider that in 2002, before this postseason format was even a thought more households (according to Nielsen) were tuned into the 27th race of a full, regular season slate (New Hampshire).
Considering the sobering reality of such numbers, the fact NASCAR wants to keep pushing the postseason smells like they’re not calling the shots, either. What normal person would look at this set of numbers and say they were healthy? You have to figure that, to some degree Sprint or the networks, as much as everyone wants to hate on Brian France’s “idea” may have a role in its retention.
Did You Notice?… Some quick hits before taking off:
- It’s great to see A.J. Allmendinger reinstated. Just don’t rush to the track to see him inside a competitive ride anytime soon. The damage, both personally and professionally in NASCAR has been done and the amount of available options at this time of year are slim and none. I expect an open-wheel transition in 2013.
- If anyone in the back half of the Chase can catch up, following a one-race disaster it would be Greg Biffle based on the fact his consistency propelled him to the front of the Sprint Cup standings for much of 2012. But right now, in a point system that punishes poor performances like no other you’ve got to be thinking the two favorites actually finished 1-2 on Sunday.
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