Kyle Busch told us at Dover that one of the toughest jobs in all of NASCAR has to be that of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. He pointed out that when you are the sport’s favorite driver and things just aren’t clicking the way that everybody wants, every finger seems to point to the crew chief. And in the case of Dale Jr., that crew chief was his cousin, Tony Eury Jr.
Of course, Kyle was just being Kyle, but I’m not so sure that I don’t agree with him! Unfortunately, the expectations that come along with the name of Earnhardt in this sport are unrealistic. Since he is the son of the late seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Sr., the general feeling is that he should follow in the footsteps of his famous father and be both a consistent visitor to victory lane and a contender for the title every year.
To Dale Jr.’s credit, he lived up to those lofty expectations early in his career but in recent years that hasn’t been the case. He, along with Eury Jr., left Dale Earnhardt Inc. after 2007 for Hendrick Motorsports in a move that was supposed to give him the opportunity to once again be a threat to win whenever the green flag was waved.
Although he did win one race last season, he never was as competitive as his teammates, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The two continued to struggle when this season got underway and to put even more pressure on the duo, Hendrick added Mark Martin to his stable. Martin now sits 12th in the standings and has already notched two wins. Johnson also has a couple of wins and Gordon has made one trip to victory lane this season.
When three out of four teams in one operation are winning races and sitting inside the top 12, it puts pressure on the one team that isn’t. Dale Jr. has more pressure on him than any other driver in the series, but it may have been that Tony Jr. felt even more. The press was constantly on him, questioning his every move during a race.
It was evident that Rick Hendrick had to make a move, and that Tony Jr. would be the one to go. While he no doubt wanted to stay and try to turn things around with Dale Jr., the move could turn out to be the best thing for him, as it will give him a chance to catch his breath and in the process become a better crew chief.
Hendrick didn’t kick him out on the street; Tony Jr. is still with the organization and will now take a role with its research and development team. This will give him a chance to work with all of the Hendrick crew chiefs, and maybe learn a different way of approaching the job.
There will be no down time for Tony Jr., as he will be going to Carolina MotorSports Park in Kershaw, S.C., this week to supervise two days of road course testing with three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. He will also crew chief Hendrick’s #25 GoDaddy.com team with driver Brad Keselowski in several races this season. The next race that team will attempt to qualify for is the July race at Chicagoland Speedway.
It will definitely be a change of pace for Tony Jr., but it’s a change that could kickstart his career. He now has the opportunity to learn from some of the best engineers, drivers, and crew chiefs in the sport without the pressure of having to go out each weekend and perform at a championship level. While some may look at it as a huge embarrassment, in reality it could be the change that allows him to move on to the next level when he gets the opportunity.
Pit Pass: Tony S tewart’s second place finish at Dover on Sunday moved him on top of the point standings for the first time ever as an owner/driver. It has been since 1992 that an owner/driver sat on top of the standings. That year owner/driver Alan Kulwicki finished the season on top as he won his only title of his career. Kulwicki was the ultimate underdog that year, as he ran a one-car operation with very limited funds. He showed that it could be done and Stewart is making a strong case that we may see it again. Stewart has yet to win a race this season, but he has a history of winning races in a bunch, which could make him the man to beat as we head towards the Chase for the Championship.
Race Preview — Event: Pocono 500. Track: Pocono Raceway (2.5 mile triangle, turn 1: banked 14, turn 2:8, turn 3:6). Date: June 6, 2:15 p.m. TV: TNT. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kasey Kahne.