This past Friday at Michigan International Speedway, there was a question and answer session near several of the drivers’ 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.
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 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 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 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 fives and top 10s are much more satisfying and enjoyable with Tony Jr. than 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 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-five 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 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 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 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 Eury Jr.’s abilities that 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 Jr. 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.