Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Should Dale Earnhardt Jr. & Tony Eury Jr. Split Up?

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 Eury Jr. 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 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, 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 Earnhardt Jr. His new crew chief Pete Rondeau didn’t even last half a season, 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 re-conjoined for 2006 – winning at Richmond together in June of that year.

After qualifying for the the Chase and finishing fifth in the final points 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 rollercoaster 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 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, then 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 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 Martin. Martin won a race after going winless in 2001 and contended for the Sprint Cup, while 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 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 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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