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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Tough Love – Dale Earnhardt Jr. & Tony Eury Jr., Rip Off the Band-Aid & Start the Healing

Well, here we go again – the rumor mill is at Def-Con 2 this week, with talk of Tony Eury Jr.’s imminent demise and departure as crew chief for cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost one year since Earnhardt Jr. last won a race, on Father’s Day weekend at Michigan International Speedway. I was there that day and actually stood in victory lane – albeit briefly due to a typical Michigan thunderstorm that popped up out of nowhere – with Dale, Tony, Rick Hendrick and the entire Hendrick organization who came over to congratulate them on their win. It was an emotional one to say the least for these two. Junior was peppered by questions all weekend long regarding his performance and his loyalty to his cousin that many saw as taking precedence over performance.

By Friday afternoon, he seemed exhausted and tired of the questioning, looking drained, dazed and confused.

Being at ground zero for what was one of the biggest wins ever for NASCAR’s most popular driver was quite a moment to behold. Not because I’m a Junior Nation Kool-Aid drinker, or because I was getting doused with Amp Energy drink (which tastes worse warm – if that is even possible), but because I got to see first hand the bond between Tony and Dale Jr. that was as real and genuine as is often portrayed in the media.

Brooke and Jeff Gordon circa 1997, this is not.

While some may be saying, “It’s about –ing time…”, it was also pretty self-explanatory why it has taken so long to get to this point. Our own Tom Bowles wrote earlier this week for Sports Illustrated that a well-placed and trusted source of his revealed that Eury would not be atop the war wagon of the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet, that has toiled in mediocrity so far in 2008. While Jimmie Johnson is laying low with a win and sharpening the knives come Chase time, Gordon has returned to form and atop the points standings, and Hendrick newcomer Mark Martin has transformed the No. 5 car back into the flagship it originally was for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. has had to continuously defend his cousin in the face of consistently poor finishes. Sadly for the two cantankerous cousins, not much has changed performance wise since the grumblings regarding results taking a backseat to their relationship, began a year ago.

As much as the two would like to stick it out and make it work, the fact is, they just aren’t running well, and there has been nothing to indicate that anything is going to change anytime soon. Staying together isn’t doing either one of them or their team any good. It’s like that scene in Titanic when the ship was saying, but the band played on.

In the press room following the win at Michigan last year, I asked Junior how it felt to finally shut up those who said that he and his cousin would be better served apart than together. He was laughing and grinning from ear to ear – his win that day met as much as his 2004 Daytona 500 win as far as I could tell. Tony Jr. was more subdued, saying he didn’t pay much attention to all of the rumor and innuendo that had surrounded the two of them all year long. With what has been written and said about him then and in recent weeks, I can understand why he’d turn a deaf ear to it.

The mantra last year was “let’s wait it out; it’s a new car and an unknown quantity.” The No. 88 car would often start off strong, but by the end of the race, it would advance to the rear, handling more like an Amish hay cart with a loose wooden wheel. The time that was taken to work out the kinks has taken a turn for the worse. While many within HMS (and probably NASCAR since their most popular driver is only shown on TV being lapped) had hoped that time would be on their side, it has instead passed them by, at his year things have gone from bad to worse.

No longer does the No. 88 car start out fast and become progressively worse. Now it starts slow and stays that way, followed by exasperated exchanges that have culminated with Tony Jr. turning to the driver for suggestions saying, “I don’t know what else to do with it.” Comments like that have brought equally charged retorts from the driver, who in the past usually sounded like he was the one trying to keep his crew chief pumped up. Not so this year. At Phoenix, Earnhardt Jr. came across the radio early in the going and let his crew chief have it. “Way to go, you had to go and change it… if you had just left it alone, it would have been fine!”

Now it appears the boss man is stepping in between these two.

While Rick Hendrick tried to stay out of the way and let these two grow old together in the greatest motorsports dynasty this side of Maranello, there are signs that he is preparing to make a change. A few weeks ago it was rumored that No. 5 crew chief Alan Gustafson would be swapped out with Tony Eury Jr. after dismal early season performances peppered by Junior blowing through his pit stall a couple of times. Gustafson and Martin put those notions to rest with a pair of wins coupled with the announcement that Mark would be back in the No. 5 full-time in 2010. While Martin and Gustafson are making a strong case for the Chase, it would be foolish to split those to up. Junior on the other hand is 203 points out of the 12th and final transfer spot.

If there is going to be a last-ditch Hail Mary effort – it has to be made now.

Many long time Junior fans still contend that Tony and Dale together are better than they are apart. While that may sound like a nice sentiment, the numbers speak for themselves. Earnhardt Jr. has remarked in the past that he would rather run 10th with his family and friends than win races with total strangers. Well, he’s well down that path having won just two races in nearly three seasons of racing – one of which was arguably a fuel-mileage fluke. He has since been hung with the worst insults you could hang on a driver: “Overrated” and, “Average-at-Best.”

This is exactly why a change is needed.

The keys to Earnhardt Jr.’s success early on was the motivation and to put it bluntly, the boot-in-the-ass style of communication provided by his late father and uncle, Tony Eury Sr. Even during his well-known days of partying and wearing his hat backwards, either his dad or Tony Sr. seemed to be able to get in his ear and get him up on the wheel. You don’t win two Nationwide (the Busch Series) championships and 18 races at the Cup level by being a Jake. Earnhardt Jr. is in a prime position with the best team in racing to make hay while the sun is shining, and fulfill his potential and God-given talents. To see that wither and die on the vine by running with the likes of Scott Riggs and David Gilliland in a barely-sponsored car is unfortunate at best and at worst downright shameful.

Following a race in 2005, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the comment that, “People want to clown me and make it look like I don’t care about winning or take this seriously… and that’s just not true.” If that that is indeed the way he feels, hopefully he too will see that a change is desperately needed atop the pit box in the No. 88 stall that he keeps driving through. Judging by his recent comments and tone on the radio, I think he understands that time has come. Now the only questions that remain are, can he actually go through with it, who will be the replacement, and have the made the switch in time to salvage 2009?

Perhaps two of those three questions will be answered this weekend at Dover. The other, we won’t know until Richmond in September.