Author’s Note: My advertised column on conspiracy theories and NASCAR will run next week. I felt that the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation warranted some comment this week. But not to fear, The Roswell 500 will run next week.
The announcement that much of NASCAR Nation has been waiting for with bated breath came Thursday: Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. will part ways, effective immediately. Hendrick Motorsports team manager Brian Whitesell will be on top of the pit box this weekend at Dover, and then veteran head wrench Lance McGrew will take the reins on an interim basis while a permanent replacement is sought.
Both Whitesell and McGrew have found victory lane as crew chiefs, Whitesell with Jeff Gordon and McGrew with several drivers from the Camping World Truck Series and up. Though it is easy to lose sight of with the way things have been going, Earnhardt has a decent record himself – his 18 Cup wins rank ninth among active drivers. He has more wins than Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle or Kyle Busch, in fact. The majority of his success came with a crew chief other than Eury Jr. All of which adds up to mean only one thing.
It’s do or die time.
Many fans and media have called for Eury Jr.’s dismissal in recent weeks as their performance was lackluster, to say the least. It came to a head this week at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt finished a miserable 40th in the Coca-Cola 600 with no immediate mechanical issues. Eury will remain with Hendrick Motorsports’ research and development division. Upon the announcement of the split, Eury expressed a myriad of emotions. “I have mixed feelings and that’s just natural,” Eury said. “But I enjoy working at Hendrick Motorsports, and this is where I want to be. I’ll do whatever I can to help all of our teams and try to be a part of another championship. I think a new challenge will be good.” That may be Eury putting on a brave face, but it could also be a relief to the beleaguered mechanic, who has taken the brunt of abuse from Earnhardt’s legion of fans for their performance.
Even Earnhardt, who said a few weeks ago that he’d rather not win with Eury than win with another crew chief, was resigned to the need for change and disappointed, admitting that all was not well in the No. 88 camp. “We’ve been sort of at odds with each other over the last couple of weeks. As a whole, our relationship is really, really strong, and we’ve always really had a great enthusiasm to work together. We came to Hendrick with a little bit of a risk. We felt a lot of pressure when we went to Rick to work, but we jumped in with both feet and really felt like we were going to make it happen. It’s really, really disappointing that it didn’t work out like we wanted.”
Earnhardt has a reputation of being kind of, for lack of better words, high maintenance. While able to communicate a racecar effectively to a crew chief – he was praised for just that ability by teammate Jimmie Johnson, who is possibly the best in the business at communicating what a racecar is doing – he has a tendency to let emotion get the better of him when things aren’t going well, and Eury’s weakness was the inability to rein him in when that happened, a combination which often led to a minor (or major) meltdown of the team structure. Earnhardt and Eury are probably the closest driver-crew chief combination in the business. Not even Johnson and Chad Knaus are as tight as the two cousins who grew up racing together.
Which, ironically, may have been the problem all along. It’s hard to tell someone who is your best friend to shut up and drive, even if he needs to both hear and heed it. It’s hard to listen to someone you regard as your equal when they are telling you to shut up and drive and the racecar he gave you isn’t cooperating. And so the vicious circle began: the car not handling right for Earnhardt, Earnhardt growing frustrated as pit stops rolled by and Eury couldn’t fix the car, and finally the communication dissolving completely, causing the car to remain stagnant, at best, while all around them, cars were slowly being adjusted into improvement.
And now race fans everywhere will know for sure if Eury was the problem or if Earnhardt is, as some suggest, overrated as a driver. It’s not an observation to be made in a week or two, but as summer heats up, it will be time to take a long hard look at the No. 88 team, as well as the driver. If they are running where most think Earnhardt is capable of, top 15 each week at the bare minimum, then it’s time to reevaluate what the driver truly is capable of. That doesn’t mean his job is unsafe – there is a lot to be said for having a driver as marketable as Earnhardt is among his HMS teammates whose age and seeming polarization of fans make them slightly less marketable than Earnhardt in today’s world where winning races is only a piece of the puzzle. But it does mean that many people, fans and insiders alike would have to come to an uncomfortable realization that as popular as Earnhardt is, he may never be a championship caliber driver in today’s NASCAR.
If McGrew can turn Earnhardt’s season around, he will find himself a popular man indeed. And it is certainly possible. McGrew has guided drivers of all personality types from wise-beyond-their years Ricky Hendrick and Brian Vickers to the volatile, sometimes explosive Kyle Busch to victory lane. If he can stand up to Earnhardt’s frustration, turn it around so that Junior communicates racecar and not emotion, and then use it to turn the racecars around on the track, then this could be a very successful team indeed. Success remains sight unseen, but it cannot remain that way for long, for the sake of team, driver, owner and fans. Change blew into HMS, and with change comes hope.
The time is now.