The Frontstretch: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother: Cousins Earnhardt, Jr. and Eury, Jr. Silence Skeptics with Win at Michigan by Vito Pugliese -- Monday June 16, 2008

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This past Friday at Michigan International Speedway, there was a question and answer session near several of the driver’s haulers following the first practice session. Outside of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s No. 88 team hauler that day, the mood was anything but somber.

Strained would be a better way to describe it.

Junior was fielding the questions being asked of him, but his body language was that of a man who was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. He was looking down, with his eyes closed, speaking quietly to the point where you could barely hear him. Clearly, the stress of a season that has him sitting third in points, but with no wins to show for his efforts, every increasing scrutiny of “why” appeared to be taking its toll.

A reporter next to me then popped this gem: “Dale – how would you say you’re a different person last year than this year?”

Dale Jr. looked over at him with an icy cold glare very reminiscent, if not a dead ringer, for his father. “Come on, man; how are you gonna ask me that?” He shook his head and continued to look down, saying, “I’m just really stressed out… this has been a tough year… but I have a job to do, and we just need to work harder and go do it.”

That was pretty much the end of the interview.

Junior’s been so intense about picking up his first win for the No. 88 that a few races ago, Rick Hendrick recalls Dale Jr. remarking, “I just hope I’m able to keep my job.” Hendrick laughed, thinking Dale was just making a joke; but Junior stood there pensive and stonefaced. Hendrick reassured him, “I think your job is safe…” but that did little to stop the growing anxiety for NASCAR’s Most Popular driver.

With his winless streak over, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finally displayed a smile that had been missing for most of the 2008 season.

Fast forward to Friday afternoon’s post-qualifying press conference. Since the field was set by points after a rainout, Junior was the second driver to make his appearance in the media center conference room. As he sat, I wanted to get his take on something that seems to be a recurring theme in some circles; although, judging from his earlier demeanor, I was simply hoping his head didn’t explode like that guy in the movie, “Scanners” once I asked my question.

But there was reasoning behind my curiosity. While Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick team sits third in NASCAR Sprint Cup Points, and conversely, have been consistently the top car in the fabled Hendrick Motorsports dynasty so far this season, some have suggested that as close as the No. 88 car has come to winning, perhaps they would have won already if Earnhardt Jr. did not have cousin Tony Eury, Jr. atop the pit box. The two have been known to be cantankerous with one another on the radio during a race, their disagreements sometimes becoming as heated as they are public knowledge.

Chad and Jimmie over the air, they are not. Instead, Dale and Tony sound more like an old married couple bickering over what color shades to buy or what to make for dinner.

I asked Dale Earnhardt, Jr. if there was any merit to this, since the results so far this year would contradict that notion. And very methodically — using measured words to explain the situation to those who may not understand — Junior claimed in response the arrangement between he and Tony Eury, Jr. goes far beyond just results and performance.

“Tony Eury, Jr. … I know… could go to another team… maybe even one in this company… and be successful,” he explained. “[But] I don’t know that if I had a different crew chief… I would be as successful as I have been.” Earnhardt, Jr. went on to say that in what has become a results-obsessed business, that blood is thicker than water, money, and a cheesy trophy. “To me, Top 5s and Top 10s are much more satisfying and enjoyable with Tony Jr. then wins might be with anybody else.”

Putting things into perspective, Dale Jr. continued, “We might be cousins, but we’re more like brothers. We fight like brothers, but that’s going to be part of it, when one of us is coming from the left and the other from the right.” He summed the situation up succinctly by saying, “I’ve raced and won with him the past, and look forward to winning more together in the future.”

Fast forward to Sunday’s LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway, and actions proved louder than words in how sincere Junior was with his pledge.

As the golf carts wheeled the drivers from the motorhome lot to the starting grid for driver introductions, there was a line of fans standing alongside the tunnel that separates the paddock area from pit road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the competitors as they made their way to driver introductions. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came around the corner, and the cheers erupted from all of about 20 people, that trademark smirk shared also by his father returned, as well as a look of self-confidence seen in his face and posture — one which had been both drawn and downcast just two days earlier.

If just for a moment, the old Junior was back; but in hindsight, it looks like he carried that momentum all the way through his afternoon in the Irish Hills.

Starting third, the No. 88 Chevrolet was a Top 5 car all race long, but appeared to lack the pure speed needed to contend for the win. The fastest car doesn’t always win the race, however, and some late race strategy was in order.

Enter Tony Eury, Jr.

Earnhardt’s cousin and crew chief Eury Jr. saw the opportunity to go for the win after a caution came out when Sam Hornish, Jr. spun coming off of Turn 4 on lap 197. “The way I figured it, we were going to either go for the win, or pit and finish 25th. Or, we could run out of gas and finish 25th on the last lap,” said Eury.

Junior was on board with his cousin’s decision. “Once he explained it to me, I was like, ‘alright man, cool, let’s go for it!’ I don’t know how to explain it. I knew it was a gamble, but I just felt real calm about it, like everything was going to be alright.”

Eury Jr. did not share his cousin’s enthusiasm, though.

“Man, I am still tore up right now,” he said in a post-race press conference. “I have never had nerves like this before. You never want to wish misfortune on someone, but I was sitting there thinking, ‘man… somebody hit something!‘”

That exchange between crew chief and driver, and for that matter cousin to cousin, is precisely what makes this duo work. Communication has long been revered as the key to any successful driver / crew chief combination. For Dale Earnhardt, Jr. he needs to have somebody he can trust and confide in — as well as air any disagreements on the spot.

“I need to be able to go into a room and close the door, and say whatever is on my mind. I can’t imagine myself sitting there in the garage, biting my lip, and not saying what I was feeling or needed to say.” To that extent, Junior also appreciates his cousin’s candor. “I need to be motivated, and Tony knows how to push me to get the most out of myself. If I went out there and gave 80%, and he didn’t get on me or say anything to me about it… I’d be worried.”

While Eury may be his ultimate motivator, he also shares a sense of perspective and philosophy that helps ground the driver of his car, who is under as much pressure as anyone could be. Not only is he the son of a seven-time Cup Champion, Junior also shares the name of perhaps the greatest driver ever to throw on a helmet and some Nomex footies.

“We have a fire that burns in us to win, but it’s not an inferno that burns up everything around you. Early on man, there was. Winning was the only thing. But after having done this for 14 years now, I’ve seen a lot of stuff, and a lot of people come and go. You learn real fast what’s important in life.”

Beyond the personal rapport, it also comes down to confidence in the abilities of the crew chief to understand what his driver needs in a car. “Tony is really good at finding out what I like in the car, and knowing what I want to the car to feel like. He is really good at spotting trends and themes in setups, regardless of the track we’re at,” said Junior. “He’ll find a pair of rear springs and we can run them pretty much everywhere. There are a lot of unknowns with this car, and a lot of things we have left to figure out with it, and him knowing what I want to feel comfortable will go a long way with that.”

So confident is he in Tony Eury, Jr.‘s abilities that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. summarized his talents as such: “When it’s all said and done and this thing is over, the record will show that Tony Eury, Jr. will be one of the greatest ever.”

“And I don’t want to get beat by him.”

Following the abbreviated Victory Lane session held in the infield grass along the frontstretch, Dale Junior was once again back in a golf cart, his cousin Tony Eury, Jr. in tow. He had just received a cell phone call from his sister Kelly, who was crying tears of joy for her little brother, who had finally broken through and won perhaps the most important race of his career — on Father’s Day, no less.

And he did it with the man who is not just his crew chief and cousin, but his brother as well.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Kevin in SoCal
06/16/2008 02:26 AM
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He may have won, but its complete and total BS. How many fans said Danica’s win in the IRL was BS because it was fuel mileage? He also passed the pace car TWICE after NASCAR warned him not to, and yet he gets no black flag. CONSPIRACY! Its a bunch of crap and I cry foul.

Kyle
06/16/2008 06:26 AM
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Kevin, posting the same bitching just on a different article. get a life and CHEER for YOUR guy. don’t knock someone else because your a Monday morning quarterback … er … driver.

GO DALE! the monkey’s off your back!

Mike In NH
06/16/2008 07:42 AM
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Glad he got the win, though I’d love to know who punted Carpentier on the frontstretch – even he’s not bad enough to spin on a straightaway – and brought out the caution – was it a Hendricks team member, perhaps? But it counts, and it’s about time he got a break that came his way. Now people can get off his back and let him just race. Not that they will, but they could. Really, I wish people would just appreciate him for what he is – a good man, a very good racer – rather than what he isn’t – a winning machine or a clone of his Dad. Speaking of, I hope I’m not the only one who was moved by him winning on Fathers Day of all days.

Douglas
06/16/2008 07:43 AM
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NA$CAR rule book #1: FOR ALL COMPETITORS EXCEPT JR.!

NA$CAR rule book #2: SPECIFICALLY FOR JR.! Written as required!

This is the second race NA$CAR has “given” to Jr.! (when in direct violation of the rules), when ALL OTHER DRIVERS would have been penalized!

In this case, the “MONKEY” happens to be NA$CAR itself!

Vito Pugliese -FS Staff
06/16/2008 07:45 AM
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NASCAR warned him that if he did the pacecar thing again, they’d bring him in. He acknowledged that, and didn’t do it. Everybody was running out of gas, coasting, shutting it off, turning it back on those last couple of laps. Everybody gets a warning before they punch your ticket.

I found it ironic that on the final restart, the next cars in line behind him were the Budweiser car, and the number 8.

Steven
06/16/2008 10:02 AM
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Mike in NH –

It was contact between Waltrip and Truex that got the ball rolling for that final yellow. Carpentier looked to be a victim of Waltrip’s car as he went around.

-Steven

Mike In NH
06/16/2008 10:09 AM
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Steven – thanks. TNT didn’t show any replays of the incident at all, which is one of several mistakes for them on the day (but I do like the RaceBuddy multicam feature online, even if the annoying little guy on the popup is doing his laps backwards!).

Douglas, if they were really bending the rules to favor Junior, would he have gone 76 races without a win? I don’t think so. Giving him a warning not to do it again or he’d be put to the pits was the right thing to do since it really didn’t affect the race at all.

Kevin in SoCal
06/16/2008 12:46 PM
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Thank you Steven. I figured it would be one of the other 3 Hendrick cars to bring out the yellow for him, but its was Dale’s good buddy Truex who did the deed. Hrrrmmmmmmm! I havent watched Victory Lane or Wind Tunnel yet, was the replay shown there?

Douglas
06/16/2008 12:58 PM
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Hey Mike in NH, OK, “point” taken, according to NA$CAR the no passing the pace car is intended for preventing a car from going all the way around the track and making up a lap, or some stupid thing like that! BUT!! How can you say what he did, “did not really affect the race at all”??

The ENTIRE POINT is he WAS trying to affect the outcome of the race! That is why he did what he did!

I am however, kinda appreciating the sincerity Jr. showed, and the emotion of the win! Kinda refreshing, and I am definitely NOT a Jr. fan!

AND!!! Get this!

Just how sick is NA$CAR when the guys trying to “win” the race actually have their engines turned off???

Hey Jr.?? Question?? Why did you turn your motor off?

Answer:, “Well, I was trying to win the race”!!!

Welcome to the circus called NA$CAR!

Kevin in SoCal
06/16/2008 12:59 PM
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Kyle, I’ve never posted who my driver is, but my two favorites both have a Cup championship in recent years, and have won multiple times in the last 76 races, unlike Jr. I love to point out his short-comings because it brings the Jr brown-nosers out of the woodwork, and they’re hilarious to watch defend their boy.

Douglas, there’s a separate rulebook for Jeff Gordon, too.

Vito, I’m surprised you were able to wake up in time to watch the end of the race, considering it wasnt a sellout and not nearly enough people in the stands to nudge you when it was time. LOL

Jackie
06/16/2008 01:18 PM
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I’ve read enough about “passing the pace car”. NASCAR should have set a precedent last year when Biffle did it (I think at Kansas). They obviously didn’t care too much about it then, either. Oh, guess Matt Kenseth didn’t care either at that point!! Glad to see a genuinely good guy get a race win……

Rob
06/16/2008 01:41 PM
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I’m a Kasey fan, but also appreciate Dale Jr. Watching the race with others and seeing Mikey spin out, I was joking around the conspiracy that Mikey was helping his old friend win. From looking at the replays, I thought it might have been Casey Mears who hit Mike, and thus spin into Carpentier. But whoever it was, in all honesty, it looked like a racing incident.

I also thought it was ironic to see Budweiser and the number 8 behind Junior. Kasey finally got his win a few weeks ago & congrats to Dale Jr.!!!!

Ginger
06/16/2008 02:05 PM
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Vito, you rock!

Kevin in SoCal
06/16/2008 03:45 PM
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Jackie, how quickly we forget. Biffle didnt pass the pace car. He slowed a bunch and dropped to the apron to save gas “for a burnout.” But he was going so slow he was passed by 2nd place Bowyer and 3rd place Johnson who were keeping up with the pace car.

Marc
06/16/2008 09:17 PM
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None of you know Jack about NASCAR. The rule book states that a car cannot come into the pits ahead of the pace car, and must follow the car at the start/finish line. Nowhere do the rules say that you cannot pass the pace car under caution, and then get back in line. It’s probably not a situation they have even considered over the years and it is no big deal. If they want to change the rule book they will, but just because two butt heads named Douglas and Kevin don’t like it, it doesn’t mean squat.

FS_Amy
06/16/2008 10:24 PM
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Sorry, Marc, but you’re misinformed. Rule 10-4-E: “Cars may not pass the caution vehicle unles directed to do so bt a NASCAR official. any cars illegally passing the caution vehicle or the race leader will be black flagged.” The rule does not specify when or where this is in effect-it is the rule everywhere on track. It as written to prevent cars screaming down pit road to beat the pace car out , but it is very black and white.

I’m not saying Junior should or should not have won, but that’s the rule that NASCAR currently has in place.

Kevin in SoCal
06/16/2008 10:24 PM
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Well its good to know Marc’s intelligence level, since he cant make a constructive argument without name calling. He might be one of Junior’s fans who throw things onto the track when he doesnt win.

BAMA23SMOKE20
06/17/2008 12:29 AM
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First, let me start by saying I am a “true” NASCAR fanatic, and have been for years (back to when Cale was driving).
I have always said, in my opinion, NASCAR was a “true” athletic sport and drivers were “true” athletes, try having the “average-Joe” do what these death-defying drivers do, not just for one race, but an entire season. However, my opinion was been greatly altered as of yesterdays Michigan “Life-Lock” 400, not my opinion on the latter point, but on the first opinion….THE SPORT.
A sporting outcome is determined on the field, on the court, on the diamond, on the rink, maybe even by the officials (ala Kenseth pit-stop), but NEVER, let me repeat myself in case you missed that last line….NEVER by management or ownership, that would be titled by another name……. maybe……. COLLUSION!!!
Maybe the U.S. Senate should leave Bob Kraft and the Patriots alone and start talking to the France Family.
NASCAR accomplished what it, not only wanted to do, but, what it NEEDED….. to divert the attention of media and fans from the “black-eye” (pardon the pun) of the surprise announcement of the upcoming racial and sexual harassment lawsuit, to the “faux-win”, no matter how fixed it was, of the NASCAR “golden-child.
Can someone please explain to me how a driver with so little to claim as accomplishments can garner so much attention by fans and media…. that however is enough for a whole series of article in itself?!?!?!
Way to go NASCAR…… “WAG THE DOG”….. no one does it better than you!!!!!

Tom
06/17/2008 10:17 PM
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Hey, BAMA23SMOKE20, check your rear view, if this was in “Cales day” the race would have been over when the 77 spun,and finished under yellow also the drivers could pit for gas without loosing a lap because they cold go down pit road as fast as they were going on the track. It was a good win something the sport needed and the fans also, but what are the media going to talk about now? When/where is Tony going to or win?

Contact Vito Pugliese