Team owner Rick Hendrick won’t split Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his embattled crew chief despite their slow start to the season.
Hendrick committed to Earnhardt Jr., Eury Jr.
Tony Eury Jr. has always been under intense scrutiny as crew chief for NASCAR’s most popular driver, but it has hit a new level this year as the No. 88 team has just one top-10 finish through five races. Earnhardt heads to Martinsville Speedway this weekend ranked 19th in the standings.
“Both Junior and Tony have told me that if they thought they needed to be split, that they understood,” Hendrick said Wednesday in a national teleconference. “That’s my call, and I’m not ready to make that call. Not even close. I am convinced that they’re better together.
“We’ve got the right combination, and I think we’re going to be able to prove that to you guys soon.”
Hendrick said Earnhardt, a notorious late riser, was at the shop early Wednesday morning and participated in a three-hour team meeting aimed at turning the season around.
“He’s all over it,” Hendrick said. “Dale is as focused, maybe even more focused then I’ve seen since he’s been here. Dale’s taken all the suggestions that anyone has to heart, and we’ve got to give him the best stuff out there.”
Earnhardt and Eury, who are cousins, have worked together in some form for all but a portion of the 2005 season.
Because the two bickered so much at the end of 2004, they were split the next season by Earnhardt’s stepmother, Teresa. The results were disastrous for Earnhardt, who had the worst season of his nine-year career, and they were reunited with 10 races left in the year.
Earnhardt decided in 2007 to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports, and Eury negotiated a release from his contract to leave with him. But results have been mixed: they’ve combined for just one victory, and despite running strong all of last season, they faded during the Chase for the championship and finished last in the 12-driver field.
The disappointing close to their first year with Hendrick reignited the simmering Eury debate among Earnhardt’s enormous fan base, and it has escalated through the first month of this season.
Earnhardt last week asked for relief from the constant criticism Eury has faced from fans and media.
“The guy that I feel bad for is Tony Jr. He gets criticized so badly,” Earnhardt said at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Everybody in this room, and some of you have criticized him, know how smart a guy he is and that he’s a good mechanic and a solid crew chief. He just wants to do this for a living, just like I do. I’ll take the fall. I’d rather be crucified than him.
“Every time I read in the paper that people are on his case I feel like I’m sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed.”
Earnhardt also acknowledged that his team is not meeting expectations.
They failed to silence the critics Sunday, when Earnhardt fell a lap down at Bristol before needing NASCAR’s “free pass” to return to the lead lap and finish a distant 14th to winner Kyle Busch.
Mark Martin on Wednesday defended his Hendrick teammate and said Earnhardt is under tremendous pressure because he’s the son of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion who was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“The biggest thing that Junior needs is support, a pat on the back,” Martin said. “The guy is doing an incredible job. He’s carrying a heavier load than any human being could be expected to, and you know what? He’s fast. He was fast at Bristol. You can’t just look at the black and white of the finish at Bristol and comprehend how he ran there.
“Right now he just has to keep focused and not listen to all the mania that’s going on around him. That team is going to be strong, they were strong at Bristol and didn’t get an opportunity to show it. Over time, they will.”
Hendrick cautioned that it may take several races for Earnhardt to reach Victory Lane. He’s currently riding a 26-race winless streak dating to Michigan in June.
“You just don’t go from running 10th to winning every race,” Hendrick said. “So the idea is just to keep inching it up, getting it better, working on areas. Our goal is to make the Chase and win races. To lead, to be competitive. That’s always been my goal.”