The Frontstretch: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Should Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury, Jr. Split Up? by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday March 12, 2009

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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Should Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury, Jr. Split Up?

What's Vexing Vito · Vito Pugliese · Thursday March 12, 2009


Mental errors like this one-lap penalty at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pitting outside his pit box have left many wondering if it’s the man on top of that pit box week in, week out that’s putting the No. 88 in position to make those mistakes.

Like many NASCAR journalists keeping up with the sport, I was thumbing through the article links on Jayski the other day – mainly to see if my most recent submission was featured – and came across an article written by Terry Blount of ESPN where he suggested it was time for Tony and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to go their separate ways. The bickering cousins, he surmised, had run their course together, and it was time for them to see other people. If I could agree on one thing with Terry, it’s that the two have been unusually quiet lately – kind of like when couples put on happy faces for public appearances or only stay together “for the kids.” This has been the opinion shared by an ever-expanding majority of fans, too, who seem to want to pin the reason for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s struggles solely on the relationship between he and his cousin.

Well, I have always held tightly to the notion that this was hogwash. But after reading this piece, I wondered… could there be some truth to it all?

At the June race at Michigan International Speedway last year, I spoke with Dale Jr. after qualifying and asked him what he thought of implications that family unity was taking precedence over professional responsibilities. When I posed the question, “What do you think of some of the statements that have been made suggesting that a new chief should be in order?” his eyes opened up and he sheepishly mumbled, “…What do you mean??…”

It was almost as if to imply, “Do you know something I don’t know?”

Later in the conversation — when I rephrased my question to ask if he thought a crew chief change would make sense — Junior shook off the notion with crystal clear certainty. “I would rather run 10th every week with the people I love, respect, and care about than win championships with a stranger,” he explained.

Two days later, I got to ask him the same question again; but this time, I was able to preface it with, “How does it feel now when somebody asks you, ‘Don’t you think you should get a different crew chief?’ “

Tony and Dale Jr. you see, had just won the LifeLock 400 at Michigan after a fuel mileage call from the pit box.

As Junior thought over his answer from the podium, he started nodding in agreement, chuckling and grinning wildly. Right then, he knew full well what I was implying: “Doesn’t it feel good to be able to tell everybody to **** off?” As he started to answer, Tony Eury, Jr. spoke first, saying, “I don’t really pay much attention to what people say about all that.”

It was a clear example of his cousin pulling in the reins a bit on his driver, as well as someone who is more like a brother. And while this little vignette may have come from the euphoria of winning their first race since 2006 at Richmond – as well as relieving the pressure both had been under since it was announced that NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was joining forces with the most powerful force in motorsports – I think it was illustrative that these two are still stronger together than apart. Take a look back at how they ran following the first time they were separated in 2005, just a few months removed from nearly winning the 2004 Sprint Cup. Had Dale Junior not cooked himself at Infineon Raceway during practice for an ALMS event, or misjudged a pass on Carl Edwards at Atlanta, he very well could have claimed his first title that year, forever silencing those who constantly pose the question, “Why haven’t you won a championship?”

(Oh, I don’t know, probably the same reason I haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize yet. Shut up. But we’ll get to that question in a bit.)

Anyways, 2005 was an unmitigated disaster for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. His new crew chief Pete Rondeau didn’t even last half a season, and then he had a nasty tangle with teammate Michael Waltrip at the Coca-Cola 600 in May. The one bright spot was when he was able to win a race with Steve Hmiel atop the war wagon at Chicagoland that July — but the rest of the season looked a lot like the first half. It was a harsh lesson learned, and Tony and Dale were quickly reconjoined for 2006 — winning at Richmond together in June of that year. After qualifying for the The Chase and finishing fifth in the final point standings, it seemed like everything was back on course over at the No. 8 DEI Chevrolet. But their world was turned upside down again before the green flag even fell at Daytona, when focus was turned to the apparent rift between Dale Jr. and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.

While Junior tried his best to quell any controversy back then, the Budweiser Clydesdale was already out of the barn. One year later, both he and Eury moved to Hendrick Motorsports, looking for a championship but finding a roller coaster of inconsistency instead in their 15 months with the team to date. As we study the two men’s relationship now, it comes complete with a package filled with one top 10 finish and just 24th place in the season standings through four races.

But despite the slow start, we all know the real reason for the continued questions of if these two are fit to be together; Dale’s last name. Since he is the son of a seven-time Champion, than he surely should have won at least one by now, people say.

Well, not quite.

Call it Kyle Petty Syndrome if you want to: People place unattainable, unrealistic expectations on a driver expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Even Davey Allison had a similar experience, although he tragically was never fully able to realize his potential. Keeping in this same vein, the common question persists: why hasn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr. been able to produce the numbers his father did? Junior’s only won at restrictor plate tracks and a couple of short tracks!

Well, not so fast. Let’s take a look at the record here.

From 1996 to Daytona 2001, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. won eight races. Of those eight wins, three of them were at Talladega, a pair came at Atlanta, and he snagged one each at Daytona (another restrictor plate track), Bristol, and Rockingham. How does that compare to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s numbers dating back to 2004 to this point in 2009? He’s got nine wins: restrictor plate victories at Daytona and Talladega, short track wins at Bristol, Richmond (two), and Phoenix (it’s more of a short track than a superspeedway), as well as intermediate track victories at Atlanta, Chicagoland, and Michigan.

In my view, those appear to be pretty well rounded numbers that essentially mirror his old man’s.

Still, some fans are never satisfied. Junior carries the blessing and burden of being the face of NASCAR, and as such is expected to contend for championships and wins every year — regardless of the situation within his team. Those dreams are a bit unrealistic, however, and unfair to both the driver and the guy on top of the pit box calling the shots. The early season struggles this year did begin from the driver not having his head in the game at Daytona — but they were compounded by an engine failure in a competitive car at California. The team’s misfortunes could still easily be remedied with a win; and with tracks such as Bristol, Phoenix, and Richmond coming up, that may very well happen sooner than you think.

Here’s the question, though: is it already too late to change the court of public perception? With so many up in arms, will a win silence the critics who continue to demand a new leader for the No. 88 team?

Most likely, it will not. So, how long until the call comes to swap crew chiefs or teams with Hendrick Motorsports’ other team that has struggled, Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson? After all, it has become a popular practice in NASCAR the last few years to swap teams to help one that is underperforming. Richard Childress tried it in 1998 with Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, and it seemed to work fairly well. Four years later, Jack Roush followed suit, swapping the teams of Kurt Busch and Mark Martin. Martin won a race after going winless in 2001 and contended for the Sprint Cup, while Kurt Busch went on to win three of the last five races — four total that season.

But Hendrick knows these moves can always backfire. Look at Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne after they were reassigned for the 2006 season. That same year, Jeremy Mayfield was never a factor when Kenny Francis was sent to manage Kasey Kahne, while Kahne won six races with his new crew chief at the helm. Since then, Mayfield had been making about as many headlines as Casey Atwood. As it is, Martin and the No. 5 team have had a car capable of winning every race so far this year, and if not for blown engines and motors, they very well could have a pair of wins already.

Moreover, people seem to not understand where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is coming from; he would rather win a couple of races a year with Tony Jr., than win championships with Chad Knaus. There are things more important to the man than the final result. Although racing is his life, it also claimed the lives of both his father and his dad’s best friend, Neil Bonnett. And those are the types of tragedies you never forget.

So, if you’re going to dedicate your life to something, you had better be with the people you want to be with — and more importantly, want to be with you. Besides, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. probably said it best after that Michigan win regarding his cousin and crew chief. “Tony Eury, Jr. can win a championship… he will win a championship.”

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

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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03/12/2009 07:06 AM

Earnhardts’ problem has never been his cousin . Jrs’ problem is twofold . First , he is apparently incapable of communicating to the crew what the car is doing , at least in any usable form . Secondly , he doesn’t feel he needs to listen .
He’s had other crew chiefs . They had the same problems with him that Tony Jr. has . The problem doesn’t lie with the crew chiefs . So splitting the two up isn’t likely to have much effect .
And Terry Blount was out ideas for a column , so he went to the Earnhardt Jr. / Tony Jr. well again , just like all journalists who decide to like “ phone it in “ .

03/12/2009 07:20 AM

Well said, Now if it were to just sink in!

Bill B
03/12/2009 07:57 AM

Hmmm, I love it when someone makes an argument by cherry picking statistics. Why didn’t you use Sr’s 1986 -1991 statistics instead of 1996-2001?

03/12/2009 08:09 AM

I think Michael has hit the nail on the head. You have to communicate with accurate information so the crew chief can make the proper adjustments. Jr.‘s yelling and screaming doesn’t tell Tony anything. Therefore, the crew chief has to guess as to what is needed and the results are obvious.

Russ the spotter
03/12/2009 09:02 AM

Did we all not see where this was going when it was announced that Eury would go with Dale Jr. to Hendricks? It was laughable at best. Eury was a simple insurance policy for the Hendrick organization. If and when Dale Jr. stumbled Eury would be the fall guy. Let us be real here, Eury going with him to the 88 car was like taking an old girlfriend on your honeymoon with your new bride. Eury is nowhere near the caliber of people at Hendricks. I would like to sit in on a meeting of the crew chiefs during the week and hear just what if anything that Eury has to offer. Eury may be a good fit on the box for somebody but not for anybody at Hendricks. If Dale Jr. thinks Eury will win a championship then he should stay with him and follow that dead end road. Neither will win a championship in Cup either as a team or individually. He wants to race with friends and family then Dale Jr needs to get his own team into Cup and be a 2nd tier team at best.

There are so many facets to this problem. Is it the driver, the crew chief, or perhaps even more this year could it be the fact that the Hendrick possee has overextended themselves? Six full time Cup teams if you count the Stewart-Haas cars. Then figure in the starts for Brad Keselowski and all the Nationwide equipment they field.

The honeymoon was certainly over with long ago but we will wait and see how long it takes before the policy is collected on and the stowaway is removed.

M. B. Voelker
03/12/2009 09:11 AM

There’s nothing wrong with someone choosing a more comfortable working environment over greater job success. We everyday people do that all the time.

But if Jr. would rather hover at the back of the top 10 with his cousin than make the necessary changes to strive for the championship and if Rick Hendrick is fine than that idea then I don’t want to hear any more criticism when Kyle Busch fans complain that Hendrick replaced a racer with a t-shirt salesman.

Jr. fans can’t have it both ways with claims that Jr. is truly driven and giving his utmost while approving of the choice to emphasize family relationship and comfort level above the potential to improve.

And I don’t want to hear anything more about how Jr. doesn’t get special treatment because of who he is either. How many other drivers would even be given the opportunity to make that choice rather than being told that he’d do what was good for his performance or else?

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
03/12/2009 09:33 AM

Bill –

That would be comparing Apples to Oranges (whatever that means…); the level of competition and dynamic of the sport in 1986 was MUCH different than it is today.

At least the cars and enviornment are somewhat similar in the time frame I referenced.

RCR as a whole was at the top of their game in 1986 – the same cannot be said of DEI the last few years of Jr.‘s tenure there.

03/12/2009 09:40 AM

Ah another story for the non Junior fans to sink their teeth into and weigh in on, wonder where the guy is that always thinks he needs to workout more?
What I find funny is nobody is pointed the finger at the real cause for almost all the problems and that being the ridicules COT that regardless of what anyone posts is strictly a trial and error car either you hit it on the nose or you struggle all afternoon. If it was just Juniors team struggling it might be one thing but it happens weekly with many teams and couple that with Brian The Brains no test, no car modification rules over the off season this will be the normal weekly occurrence. This is just pathetic racing being provided now most are follow the leader events run on cookie cutter tracks. As for Junior and Tony splitting, the worst mistake they made was letting Darrian Grubb move to SHR working with your best friend or relation in this case is never a good thing. The best driving Junior has ever done however was for his Uncle Tony Sr. who never took any malarkey from Junior and kept him focused he seems to be lacking that with Tony Jr.

03/12/2009 09:45 AM

Jr. has to get rid of his cousin, learn to listen, learn how to drive the car and earn his keep. this is a sport and a business, not for his whims. too much partying, lifestyle, t-shirts et al. He has to concentrate on driving instead of spreading himself so thin. Most corporations ban relatives from working in the same departments – same shou.ld apply here because IT JUST IS NOT WORKING

03/12/2009 10:07 AM

Jr is too scared to end the relationship with Tony Jr. If that were to happen, and Jr got another CC, and still ran bad as ever, even with a top notch CC, he would not have one single excuse to fall back on anymore. When he still runs just as bad as he always does, all the excuses he and his rabid little fans use to explain why he is not running well, will be gone for good. Jr will have nothing left to use as his excuse for not running as well as his fans claim he should. The truth that Jr is really just an average driver, would then be exposed. Jr will never let that happen. He has to let his rabid little fans think he is the greatest driver, that is being kept back. He will keep his excuse.

Bill B
03/12/2009 10:13 AM

Thanks for the clarification. I suppose that is fair reasoning.

03/12/2009 11:03 AM

Not to rain on the Jr parade but news is out on screaming & bickering that goes on the scanner of the #88 team. Not many Crew Chiefs are gonna jump at chance to be treated that way by a driver. Not to mention being blamed by Jr Nation for every win that could have been, bad call, bad pit-stop, or every thing else they have blamed on Eury.

Kevin in the FLA
03/12/2009 12:27 PM

I understand how some could blame Jr for his inability to communicate his needs to Eury during a race, however, communication is a two way street. If Eury hasn’t trained Junior to communicate his needs over the radio in the time they’ve been together, it’s not Junior’s fault. The Crew Chief is the team leader. He needs to make sure everything is in place for his team to succeed.

That said, I don’t think that’s the problem. Until I read one quote in this article, I thought nepotism was the problem, but Junior’s quote “I would rather run 10th every week with the people I love, respect, and care about than win championships with a stranger,” pretty much says it all. He doesn’t have a yearn to win and if his father wasn’t Dale Earnhardt Sr, well, the only way he’d be working for Rick Hendrick is when he came by to mow his lawn.

Yes, it’s a nice sentiment and all his rabid 15 year old fannettes will call me mean for saying it, but that’s not the way to win a championship. That’s the way to end up as a footnote.

Kevin in SoCal
03/12/2009 12:39 PM

Dale Jr said: ““I would rather run 10th every week with the people I love, respect, and care about than win championships with a stranger,” he explained.”

If any other driver had said that, he’s be out the door on his ass. Just more proof he’s overrated and now he thinks he priviledged. The other Kevin said it above, too.

And if you want to compare Sr to Jr, why not compare them at the same age? Dale Sr getting only a handful of wins at the end of his career is nothing like Dale Jr getting only a handful of wins at the beginning of his career.

And speaking of Chicago 2005, he STOLE that win with two tires and a couple of timely debris cautions from NASCAR.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
03/12/2009 12:57 PM

Kevin –

I don’t remember Dale Sr. getting into a very ugly and very public rift with his car owner/stepmom. RCR in it’s prime was like Hendrick today; DEI was never at the level of organization that either one of these shops have been. His 2004 season was impressive, was it not? From 2005-2007 he was not in the best cars and not in the best situation; that would be the polar opposite of what his father had in his prime, or Jeff Gordon had in his prime.

I am not making excuses for Dale Earnahrdt Jr. He is convinced that the only person he can win with is Tony Jr., and his record more or less proves it.

Roush Racing was built on the back of Steve Hmiel, as was DEI. Junior was taken out of more than a few wins in 2008, and for the first half of the year, he was consistently the best Hendrick car. Everyone was ready to throw dirt on Jeff Gordon last year….now everyone is patting him on the back, calling him, “Big Daddy”, and trying to jump on the bandwagon.

This is a fickle sport if I ever saw one.

03/12/2009 02:12 PM

As we all know, a crew chief change doesn’t always ensure more success, and I don’t necessarily think that separating Eury Jr. and Dale Jr. is going to instantly propel the 88 to a championship, but I do know that Rick Hendrick runs a BUSINESS.

Therefore, he will only tolerate so much monkey business on the 88 team before he steps in and makes a decision to do something about it.

They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

Thus, I see far more scrutiny on the 88 team after this year if the on-track results don’t eclipse 2008.

That you can bet on.

I am positive he will watch this year’s progress with a keen eye, and if Junior goes in the tank at the end of the year like ’08, then changes will be made.

03/12/2009 02:15 PM

To: Russ The Spotter

Hendrick has built one Nationwide car in the last 2 years and that was for Stewart at daytona

MI. Mike
03/12/2009 02:25 PM

Jr.Jr.Jr. when will it all end. First it was the team DEI the move to Hendrick would solve all his ills. Now its poor ole Tony Eurys’ fault. How about Jr, try another team? Perhaps he can replace Kyle Bush again. Im sure that car is faster than the one he drives now. Of course he better take Eury with him as another attempt at winning and more excuses he can allow the fans to continue to blame the crew chief.
Maybe if Jr. were to consider his drinking and partying might have an affect on his performance. Oh no lets not go there, after all Jr nation thinks he is above training and dispicline.
Regardless Jr. is going to do as he pleases until Hendrick drops the hammer and gives it to him straight get with it or get out. I do believe Hendrick will fire Eury if things dont change in the future, weather Jr. likes it or not.

The thing that bothers me the most is Jr nation will scream the loudest when anyone questions Jr. and his driving ability. I do think he can drive but I also question his drive and committment. One reason is he is so physically drained after a race he can hardly talk. Most other drivers know physical conditioning is important to a driver, ask Mark Martin.

So before all Jr fans start throwing bottles at me let me end by saying I wish Jr the best. I just wish he would step to the plate and focus focus focus. To many distractions can never be good for him or the team.

03/12/2009 04:07 PM

Everyone had to see this coming a mile away if Junior didn’t win often right off the bat at HMS. Juniornation won’t settle for that.

I give him credit for taking the chance and leaving the family company to work for a stranger, but he never should have brought Eury Jr. along with him (unless deep down he wanted a built in excuse for failure). I don’t think Tony Eury Jr. is a bad crew chief by any means, and he could, in another situation, certainly be a championship caliber crew chief. I just think he’s Junior’s security blanket right now in the situation he put himself in.

So many people are saying how they think Eury isn’t fitting in at HMS. Has anyone thought about whether Junior is fitting in there? He certainly has a different personality and life style from his 3 teammates – maybe there’s a level of discomfort for him, too?

I wouldn’t be shocked to see Junior run the way – flashes of good starts to races, mediocre finishes – until his contract is up, and then have him “mature” and decide to go back to “save” DEI, where there’s another built-in excuse.

I believe Junior knows he’s not his father, but isn’t ready to admit it to himself. JMO :)

Russ the spotter
03/12/2009 05:56 PM

To: Dennis

Rick Hendrick fielded the #5 car in 35 Nationwide races last season and finished 11th in owner points. I would think they did this buy building more than 1 car in the last two years.

The Nationwide efforts will not be the thing that chokes them down. How much of the JR Motorsports equipment came from Hendrick? I would say ALL the engines.

Some of you may not remember what happended in 1993. Hendrick went into the the ’93 season with Schrader Rudd and of course this would be Gordons rookie year. Hendrick at the last moment fielded a car for Al Unser Jr for Daytona. Rudd was less than happy about it and was all but finished with the team after 1 race. Rudd went on to win the only race that season for Hendrick at Michigan. Most likley somebody in the Hendrick camp is having similar feelings now. Martin has to be wondering what he is in for, and Dale Jr. is out of excuses. Johnson and Gordon will do fine but with Keselowski thrown in the mix one can only wonder what the breaking point will be for the underachievers. Also dont forget the #14 and #39. Hendrick is the finest organization in NASCAR period. But everything has a breaking point. History will not repeat itself as far as the ’93 season goes. Hendrick is still a solid threat to win it all be it the 24 or 48 this year. But, this team is turning into more of a clan of the haves and have nots than ever before. Hendrick has never made more than 2 of their cars a legitimate threat for the championship and the cousins and their fans should have known this

03/12/2009 08:30 PM

Dale Jr said: ““I would rather run 10th every week with the people I love, respect, and care about than win championships with a stranger,” he explained.”

And there’s the reason for no championship. Why even be in the cup series?

People, like say, oh…..Kyle Bush….they want to WIN. And so did Sr. in his heyday. Just watch the interviews on DALE.

03/12/2009 09:33 PM

Theresa had it right and got crucified for her comment.

“Jr. needs to make up his mind as to whether he wants to be a celebrity or a Race Car Driver.”

More and more, from Jr., I’m hearing the attitude that being popular is more important than winning.

03/12/2009 10:21 PM

For those of you who think Dale Jr’s work environment is more important than winning…Go sit outside his property and watch him drive by. The Jr nation wants to see Jr go to the front. Would you pay to watch people drive down Rt 95 with the comfort of having their families around them? No. This is the best racing citcuit in the world and winning is the name of the game. Rick needs to fix this team.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
03/12/2009 10:52 PM

Let’s clear things up a bit –

Does Dale Junior WANT to run 10th instead of winning? NO.

Does he want to win and do it with his family? YES.

Does he think that he’d be able to accomplish his goals without Tony Jr.? NO.

He was trying to make a point, not make a case for riding. He gets mad on the radio and raises hell because he IS running 10th, and not winning.

Just want to clear that up, in case it came off like he was being flippant in his reply. He took about 10 minutes to answer the question and was using very deliberate and measured words to do so. It was used to underscore his loyalty and commitment to his crew cheif who is also his brother who is also his cousin.

03/12/2009 11:45 PM

I have never seen so many people/journalists make so many excuses for a driver. There’s always some new reason for why Jr. isn’t running well and it’s never about him. First it was the evil stepmother. Now there are people blaming it on Eury Jr., people saying Hendrick isn’t giving Jr. as good of equipment, people demanding that the 24/48 shop be split and one of them go help Jr.

I can think of a handful of drivers offhand that if they made the same comments as Jr. has of late and made the mistakes he has as of late would be crucified.

Mike In NH
03/13/2009 09:01 AM

I don’t take Junior’s “I’d rather finish 10th..” comment to mean he’s not interested in winning – anyone who has seen him out there knows he wants to win as much as anyone. I think what he meant is that it’s just as important to him that his work environment be livable – and I agree because he’s under enough pressure already from the fans and media without living with it on the track, too.

Buddy Baker on Sirius posited an idea that by his admission won’t happen but might be a good one – bring back Junior’s Nationwide crew chief, Tony Eury SENIOR (a/k/a “Pops”) for a few races to get things on track, while Tony Jr takes on the car chief job (again, like Junior’s NW days). He’s not like his son, more no-nonsense, but Junior likes and respects him. But Pops is more comfortable grooming up-and-comers (right now it’s Brad Keselowski) than the Cup racers, and I can’t see him replacing his son unless his son asked him to.

03/17/2009 10:23 PM

I love Dale Jr!!!! Regardless of wins or no wins. If you are a true Dale Jr fan you will always be one.

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