Rick Hendrick's decision to break up the partnership between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Tony Eury was probably long overdue, as the driver himself may accept.
Results for NASCAR's most popular driver have been far from what was expected since his switch to the championship-winning organization, with only one win to show during 48 races.
When Hendrick hired Earnhardt, he also hired Eury as the pair had been working together under the same roof at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. for years. Hendrick not only believed in his new driver, but also in what Junior thought was needed to make the most of being with NASCAR's top squad. In doing so, Hendrick accepted to some extent that Earnhardt and his cousin would maintain their own culture, while getting the support of a number of engineers who provided the link between Junior's-way and Hendrick's. The experiment was worth trying; after all, the Juniors had won a bunch of races together and they had been in the Chase before.
When they first raced a Hendrick car, they won straightway. That was the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona last year and then less than a week later they won a Gatorade Duel qualifying race before the Daytona 500. A year ago they were the top Hendrick team in the standings and it all looked very promising.
However, despite being very consistent, a victory in a championship race was missing and that came when they lucked into a fuel gamble at Michigan last June, which to his credit, was Eury Jr.'s call.
Since then though, they never got back to Victory Lane and even if they made the Chase, they were the worst among the title contenders by season's end, finishing the season twelfth in the standings. That form was carried into the start of this season, but it got continuously worse.
Talladega was a one-off where a second place was a sigh of relief, but the result came at a track where the role of the crew-chief is not as crucial as it is at other venues. At Talladega, the race is more in the driver's hands and the decisions he makes while racing flat-out in the draft, so it was more Dale Jr. than Eury getting the job done.
A 27th place at Richmond brought them back to reality, the same result at Darlington a week later just confirmed the ship had lost its course, and a 40th place in the Coca-Cola 600, where Earnhardt clearly struggled for balance on his car again, was simply enough for Rick Hendrick to make the call. He let them try to steer the ship back, gave them their vote of confidence a couple of months ago, but in the end it wasn't happening for them.
"Why we hadn't done this before now is we've given as much as they wanted or needed," said Hendrick. "I want to say this again, Tony Eury Jr. has been open-minded. He will try anything, he will listen to anyone. He will go get the setup from another team. He has not been stonewalled any of the assets that we have there to use.
"I think this is a pure and simple situation – if you're frustrated and everybody's frustrated and everybody's kind of down. If you go back to play the game with the same deal, you're going to be looking for the same results. We feel like, I feel like, if I shake it up a little bit everybody will stand up a little bit."
Starting with this weekend's race at Dover, Earnhardt will have to immerse himself fully into the Hendrick way of doing things. Lance McGrew, his new crew chief, is a proven race winner, who has been to Victory Lane with Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Hendrick, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and most recently Tony Stewart.
McGrew will be assisted by Brian Whitesell – who will be crew chief for Earnhardt only at Dover while McGrew works with Brad Keselowski- and also by Rex Stump. Whitesell has also won races as a crew chief when he worked with Jeff Gordon in 1999, while Stump was on Ray Evernham's words a "secret weapon" in his success beside Gordon in the past.
Rick Hendrick is not just lining up a team to fill a void, he's putting some of his best people in, to make sure this move gives Earnhardt what his other three drivers have.
"We're pulling out all the stops," said Hendrick. "We're going to do everything we can to get this team to where it needs to be, and I think the thing that I want to say, too, is it's hard to put your fingers on what the problem is or was.
"We just feel like with all the frustration, we just need a fresh start. I made that decision and Tony and Junior have accepted it, and I think I'll let them speak for themselves, but everybody has said from the very beginning if we need to do it, then let's do it."
McGrew and his group will feel the pressure of being responsible to improve the form of NASCAR fans' favorite, but it's quite likely that the move will work for both parties. If it's enough to get Earnahrdt into the Chase we'll have to see, as he sits currently 19th in the standings, 203 points out of the top-12.
Week by week, things will probably get to a point where Junior's fate will be back in his own hands and it will be up to him to steer the ship towards his goals, those of winning races and contending for championships, like he said when announcing he had signed a contract to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.
Rick Hendrick is a firm believer of his talent and commitment and he is now providing Earnhardt Jr with all the tools that he needs to translate that into results. Time will tell whether Junior can finally make it happen, be it this year or in 2010.Related stories: • Hendrick announces Earnhardt/Eury split• Earnhardt Jr. supportive of changes