Put Down the Pitchforks!

Junior & Junior

If you ventured into the NASCAR aisle of the Web in the last 48 hours you’ve probably seen the gamut of emotions and opinions surrounding the Juniors (which always seems to be the case with the most popular and often polarizing figure in the sport).

It’s the nature of the beast, but anything associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr. is subject to scrutiny.

It’s not Earnhardt’s fault. It just happens when you have millions of impatient fans with sky-high expectations. So when Earnhardt struggles on the track, his crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr, gets a lot of the blame. This week there has been a lot written about the two Juniors and I disagree with almost all of it at some level.

Ok, so someone will always throw the last one out there regardless of the context.

How About Some Perspective?

A year ago Earnhardt was enjoying a spectacular transition to Hendrick Motorsports. He won two races during Speedweeks and notched a top 10. He led laps in 10 of the first 12 races, had 1 win, 7 top 5’s and 10 top 10’s in the first 15 races. Critics point to his one win on fuel mileage as a fluke but he could have easily had two or three other wins in slightly different circumstances (late fades at Martinsville and Phoenix, a bump at Richmond, a flat tire at Charlotte).

While the team faded in the second half of the year, make no mistake, the #88 was a top 5 team overall in 2008. Earnhardt Jr’s 99.0 driver rating was 4th best. And before anyone brings up his 12th place points finish, remember that Kyle Busch was 10th.

One thing that is easy to forget is that we as fans are limited in what we see from a race team. We don’t see the intricate preparations at the shops during the week or in the garages on weekends. We see a few practice sessions, qualifying, race day and whatever else the announcers can reveal (which is not always accurate either).

The CoT has flummoxed almost every team at some point in the last two plus years. It’s not a case of Eury simply turning a wrench once or twice and getting it to turn better.

Other Drivers, Similar Situation

In 2006 (and 2008 for that matter) Steve Letarte was viewed by some Jeff Gordon fans as incompetent and unable to provide the correct support for the #24 team. Of course 2007 was a dream season for Gordon and 2009 is shaping up to be a similarly dominant one.

Tony Stewart has suffered through down times, so has Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch will too at some point. Even Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus endured a rough start to 2008. After five races they sat in 13th place with only one finish better than 12th. Five races is not enough time to judge a driver-crew chief combo.

Is Eury The Only One That Gets Junior?

While Eury Jr has been a big factor in Earnhardt’s success, including his 6-win 2004, it’s also unrealistic to say that Eury Jr is the only crew chief capable of dealing with the emotional Earnhardt.

Like no other driver in NASCAR gets emotional on the radio? As if Eury is the only one that can decipher what changes are needed when Earnhardt says his car is a P.O.S?

When Earnhardt first announced his move to Hendrick, I thought Alan Gustafson would have been the perfect crew chief to help transition to a new team. Obviously with Gustafson now paired with Mark Martin, that’s not possible, but Hendrick wouldn’t struggle for options to work on the #88.

The tone of the coverage this week has been that of a team in crisis. Earnhardt is 19th in points and only 66 shy of 12th place. He has made driver errors, lost an engine and qualified poorly in others. Bad in-race adjustments or lousy setups are only parts of the problem on the #88 team, but it’s also very early in the season.

If Earnhardt Jr is still outside the top 12 come July, then it’s fair to revisit Eury’s future. Until then, let’s all relax, give them a chance to rebound, lead some laps, challenge for wins and see how it all plays out.”