Rumor and speculation continues to circulate in the NASCAR community this week that Tony Eury Jr., crew chief of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet piloted by the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will soon be replaced. With no credible insider connected to the rumored change atop the pit box, it seems clear that any speculation concerning Eury’s job security is little more than an educated guess, but still a prediction that very well may prove to be accurate before the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway a week from Sunday.
It is not necessary to be a Mensa member in good standing to conclude that Eury Jr., first-cousin to Earnhardt Jr., might be in jeopardy of losing his position at Hendrick Motorsports. Not only is the No. 88 team that the 36-year-old calls the shots for currently ranked 18th in championship points, his car’s performance pales glaringly in comparison to the other three HMS teams of championship points leader Jeff Gordon, three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (fourth), and Mark Martin (11th), a two-time winner this season. With only one top five and three top-10 finishes to their credit so far in 2009, the Eury-led group is clearly the weak link in the Hendrick organization – and the one most in need of retooling.
There is little argument from any quarters as to whether the team has performed at an acceptable level this season – it has not. Much is, and has been, expected of the team since Earnhardt Jr. defected from Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the beginning of 2008 to race for Hendrick – an organization that Junior believed gave him the best chance of winning races and successfully competing for championships. However, expectations have yet to be met 15 months into the partnership.
Fueling the conjecture that the time was at hand to make a crew chief switch probably has as much to do with the timing as anything else. Wherein a personnel change earlier this week would have provided more breathing room for a new crew chief to organize and familiarize himself with the team, the two-week break between point-earning races seems the logical time for HMS management to make the change – a change in direction that might put Earnhardt Jr. back on the right track. With 15 races still to go to make a run at becoming eligible for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, there is no better time than now to adjust the crew on the No. 88.
The current trend for Earnhardt Jr., Eury Jr. and company is not encouraging. The last five races have resulted in four finishes of 20th or worse, with a second-place finish three races ago at Talladega being the team’s lone bright spot of the year. In fact, it is the team’s only top-five performance but, in all probability, not a run that will bolster Eury Jr.’s chances of saving his job. Considering Earnhardt Jr.’s known skills behind the wheel at restrictor-plate events, the lion’s share of credit for that runner-up finish can be expected to go to the driver.
With Earnhardt and Eury, the analysis has been beaten to death… but the bottom line is things just aren’t working out. Often times in driver/crew chief relationships, poor communication is blamed for poor performances. However, considering the longtime working relationship that the two have had, if they are not able to speak the same language by now there is no reason to believe they ever will. The two are not only cousins, but childhood chums as well – Tony Eury Jr. has been a part of Junior’s racing career for more than 18 years. Yet despite that expansive length of time spent together, more often than not this season they simply cannot seem to get on the same page during races and dial in an ill-handling racecar.
Of course, complicating the issue of replacing Eury Jr. is the wishes of his famous cousin, who prefers to take the blame for the underperforming racecars and mediocre results. “I’ve said it 100 times, and it just doesn’t seem to make a dent, but the guy that I feel bad for is Tony Jr., because he gets criticized so badly,” Earnhardt stated prior to the Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in late March. “And everyone in this [media] room, some of you have criticized him yourselves, know how smart a guy he is, truly know that he’s a good mechanic and a solid crew chief. He just wanted to do this for a living, just like I do. I’ll take the fall. I’d rather be crucified than him, because every time I read in the paper that people are on his case, I feel like people are sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed.”
To be sure, Earnhardt has made his share of mistakes this season, too. Most notably, a rash of recent pit-road gaffes has had fans scratching their heads and questioning the driver’s focus. However, Junior’s miscues aside, his cars have just not been capable of running up front to the point they’re frequently incapable of even running on the lead lap for long. Besides, the thought of replacing a driver here is not an option or a consideration. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the No. 88. He is, due to his immense popularity and revenue-earning capabilities, untouchable.
As a result, Tony Eury Jr. has been in a no-win situation since he and Junior teamed up for their first points race with Hendrick at last year’s season-opening Daytona 500. Prior to the two Junior’s debut with HMS, I stated in January of 2008:
“…it seems the first finger pointed at any hint of a slump will be at a Junior; but not Junior the race car 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 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 Tony Eury Jr. to take the brunt of the criticism. Simply put, there will be no other direction – albeit the driver – to point fingers.”
There is little doubt that Eury Jr. has been aware that he is the number one guy responsible for the on-track success of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – and if the wins and top fives don’t materialize, it will be him that will be held accountable. And if the rumors are to be believed, sooner rather than later it’s his head that will be the one which rolls – right or wrong.
Whether Tony Eury Jr. keeps his job for now is still a big guessing game. But what is not is that without a significant turnaround in performance, there will inevitably be a change atop the pit box before long.
And that’s my view from turn 5.