Earnhardt Fires his Crew Chief

  • May 28, 2009, 3:08 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a new crew chief starting with this weekend's race at Dover because of a slump that has dragged deep into the season.

Tony Eury Jr. was removed as crew chief of Earnhardt's No. 88 team Thursday. The two are cousins and have worked together during Earnhardt's entire career.

"It seemed the harder we pushed, the more it unraveled,'' team owner Rick Hendrick told The Associated Press. "We need a new reason to get up and go to the track each morning, and the chemistry had broken down between them to the point where we just needed a fresh start.''

The pair left Dale Earnhardt Inc. last season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. But despite driving for NASCAR's top team they have one win in 48 races with Hendrick and are 19th in points. They hit rock bottom with Monday's 40th-place finish at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Team manager Brian Whitesell will be the crew chief this weekend. Lance McGrew will take over in two weeks on an interim basis as Hendrick decides on a long-term plan for NASCAR's most popular driver.

After Monday's rain-shortened race, Hendrick's commitment to the pair had clearly waned following months of steadfast support.

"I kept waiting for the break, kept waiting for something positive to happen,'' Hendrick said. "Monday sure didn't help. I was talking to our guys and I just said, 'It's time, we've just got to do it.'''

Earnhardt and Eury spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing on the road course at Virginia International Raceway. Hendrick told them he was splitting the two when they returned Wednesday evening. He said they needed time to adjust to the split.

"I don't know that they were 100 percent, but by this morning, both of them said they were good,'' Hendrick said. "I don't think they felt good when I told them, but I think they'll feel better as the days go on.''

Eury will stay with Hendrick Motorsports in a research and development role. Whatever route Hendrick takes with Earnhardt, he's giving Earnhardt the full-time use of Whitesell and Rex Stump, the lead chassis engineer.

Earnhardt and Eury are grandsons of Robert Gee, one of Hendrick's first employees. The two went through a rough patch that led to constant bickering at the end of the 2004 season when they raced for the championship at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Earnhardt's stepmother, Teresa, separated them at the start of 2005, a move that led Earnhardt to finish a career-worst 19th in the standings. They were back together before the end of the season, but won just one race together in 2006 as Earnhardt's relationship with his stepmother rapidly deteriorated.

The next year, Earnhardt wrestled with the decision to leave DEI, then embarked on one of the most high-profile free agencies in NASCAR history. He settled on Hendrick Motorsports, and Eury went with him.

Although they opened their first season at Hendrick by winning the exhibition Budweiser Shootout and a Daytona 500 qualifying race, Earnhardt didn't win a points race until the 15th event of the year. That was at Michigan, his only victory all season.

Still, consistency put him at the top of the title contenders when the Chase for the championship began. But Eury and Earnhardt moved away from what got them into the Chase and finished last in the 12-driver field.

This year, Earnhardt opened with two pit-road mistakes in the Daytona 500 that put him in position to later trigger a nine-car accident. The pit-road errors have plagued him most of the season, but the poor showings have spilled onto the track as well.

Earnhardt has just three top-10 finishes this season and six finishes of 27th or worse. He's getting dangerously close to getting too far behind to rally for a spot in the Chase.

That's unacceptable for a driver who went to Hendrick to win the Cup title that has eluded him his entire career. His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, was a seven-time Cup champion before his death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Despite their shortcomings - two wins in the past 120 races - Earnhardt remained fiercely loyal to Eury and was pained when his fans blamed the crew chief for their failures.

"The guy that I feel bad for is Tony Jr. He gets criticized so badly,'' Earnhardt said in one of his early season defenses of Eury. "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. ... 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.''

Hendrick said shortly after that he was "100 percent'' behind the pairing.

"Both Junior and Tony have told me that if they thought they needed to be split, that they understood,'' Hendrick said. "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.''

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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