When Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to the track for testing Monday in the new No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, his presence at Daytona officially ushered in a new era for fans hopeful for greater success in the coming years for stock car racing’s Most Popular Driver.
Now that the son of NASCAR legend and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt is officially driving for arguably the top race team on the circuit, it appears that all systems are a go for Earnhardt Jr. to take his career accomplishments to a higher level and quite possibly not only contend for championships, but win one or more. On Tuesday, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. took that momentum and ran with it – he predicted the No. 88 would win no less than four races during its first year on the Sprint Cup tour.
Of course, with Earnhardt’s demonstrated ability to chauffeur a racecar and the Hendrick organization behind him, there is every reason to believe that the long-suffering members of Earnhardt Nation will be rewarded. But like any good prediction, nothing is set in stone. What if Junior’s performance does not live up to the high expectations set by both Earnhardt Jr. and his fans? Who will be to blame then?
Chances are, it’ll be the man turning the wrenches.
Typically, when a veteran driver acknowledged to be talented does not run up front, the reason for the driver’s decline in performance is assumed to be inferior equipment. And should Junior struggle out of the box, there will be those that will conjure up conspiracy theories at HMS – particularly if new teammates Jeff Gordon and/or Jimmie Johnson far exceed his finishes on race day.
However, there should be very little support for such accusations, as there is absolutely nothing to be gained by the organization stacking the deck against their new high-profile driver. Dale Jr. racing himself into the NASCAR record books as a Sprint Cup champion in a Hendrick Motorsports entry would be every bit as significant of a achievement, if not more so, as Gordon winning his fifth championship – or, for that matter, Johnson taking his third straight. The financial boon to HMS in the case of Junior winning would be difficult to estimate, but it would certainly be just as lucrative.
At mid-May’s announcement that Earnhardt Jr. had signed a five-year deal with Hendrick, Junior expressed his full confidence in his new employer’s race team, saying, “I wanted to take as much time as possible to find the right team, the team that was right for me as a person and one where I could compete for championships. As I sit here today, I can say with complete honesty that I found and accomplished that goal.
“We talked with many teams, but one stood out above the rest [Rick Hendrick’s]. It became apparent to me [Hendrick is] the man that I wanted to drive for. I’ve known him since childhood – he competes with integrity, and more importantly, he wins races.”
Junior is correct; there is no one else that could have provided him with a better opportunity to win races and compete for championships. He knows it, Rick Hendrick knows it, and so do the Dale Jr. loyalists that have followed his recent career move. If Junior does not become competitive quickly, there will be no more external explanations, such as evil-spiteful-absentee-penny-pinching stepmothers to fall back on. If Junior doesn’t do it now, it will be him and his team’s blame to bear – not the car owner’s.
With that scenario in mind, it seems the first finger pointed at any hint of a slump will be at a Junior; but not Junior the racecar driver. Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief of the No. 88, will play as much of a critical role as Earnhardt in getting this team in line with the Hendrick system, absorbing all the similar expectations about his performance in the coming year. Speaking of working in a pressure cooker, no one in NASCAR can be in more of an unenviable employment situation than the 35-year-old Eury, who has worked with Junior almost his entire professional racing career as a tire changer, car chief and crew chief.
Having left Dale Earnhardt Inc. in early October for HMS, Tony Jr. has been paving the way for Earnhardt Jr.’s debut ever since – a road that will be paved with either gold or potholes around every turn. However, with nothing but praise for the management and resources at Hendrick, Eury Jr. has confirmed that everything on the team owner’s side is up to snuff; so, if poor performances were to visit the No. 88 bunch, look for Eury Jr. to take the brunt of the criticism. Simply put, there will be no other direction – albeit the driver – to point fingers.
The irony is that conversely, should the team jell quickly and experience immediate success, look for very little credit to be sent Tony Jr.’s way. In the minds of most, the results will be a combination of a championship-caliber driver and a proven, championship-winning racing organization. It’s seemingly a “no win” position for the crew chief – not a position to envy, for sure.
But there’s no doubt Tony Jr. knows the score. That he, too, decided to make the transition to HMS after Dale Jr. elected to leave DEI demonstrates his commitment to his cousin, as well as confidence in his ability to be compared side-by-side with the likes of Hendrick crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus. Both are looked at as consummate professionals, and the hard-working efforts of Tony Jr. these last few months suggests he’d soon like to be looked at in the same way.
That’s a necessity, because professionalism will be the key to the two Juniors showing the world that not only are they both championship material, but that they are a championship team, no ifs, ands, or buts. Their relationship has not always been a tranquil one, as the cousins have squabbled at times. In fact, at the end of 2004, they even split from one another, with Eury Jr. moving to the No. 15 DEI team. Before reuniting for the full 2006 season, Dale Jr. explained that parting of ways.
“We were driving ourselves apart with our attitudes toward each other,” he said then. “Sometimes, we act like children and sometimes, you need a lesson – and we had to give it to ourselves.
“We’re just both really immature for our age, and that’s due to the fact that our fathers let us raise ourselves, pretty much. The more mature we get, the easier it is for us to work together.”
Since once again joining forces, the two have indeed matured; they’ve endured few beefs with one another, although their on-track expectations were not being fulfilled. However, throughout that disappointment emerged one key point – both have been of the opinion that Junior’s subpar performances were more a result of the management at DEI than any failings on their part. That caused the two, in part, to move on; and in turn, ramps up the pressure like never before.
The difference is now – if the bickering starts or the expected results do not materialize – Tony Jr. will take the responsibility. There are only the two of them left to blame – and you can bet fault won’t lie with the Junior that slides behind the wheel.
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