As anyone knows who's read the blog or seen my posts in various places, I am a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. That's not debatable. I will defend Dale Jr. as long as he wants to drive a race car or own a racing team. He's a very likable man, and has a lot of talent. He's his own man, not just Dale's son, but he has a career and business interests all his own.
After the Pocono race on Sunday, Dale Jr. reportedly exited his 88 Amp Energy Drink / National Guard Chevrolet and slammed his helmet to the ground. Frustration is expected from a driver who had a top 5 car all day and finished 12th, coasting over the finish line out of fuel. But it apparently was not the fuel issue that had Nascar's most popular driver upset.
In the closing laps of the race, Dale Jr.'s car kept getting looser, or to the uninformed, the rear wheels did not want to stay attached to the pavement as Earnhardt Jr. negotiated Pocono's 3 tight corners. Dale Jr. complained about that loose condition on his last pit stop, and apparently his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., made changes that actually loosened the car further, rather than tightened it up. Fuel mileage aside, and having a top 15 finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was obviously very frustrated and annoyed.
Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. are cousins. They have been known to fight and bicker, because in truth, they are like brothers. They grew up together. Tony Jr. took over for his father as crew chief for Dale Jr. when his father, Tony Eury Sr. relinquished the top crew job. In 2004, Dale Jr. won a lot of races, but things fell apart between Tony Jr. and Dale. As a result, they finished the season without the much sought championship and were basically not on speaking terms with each other.
2005 brought Dale Jr. new crew chiefs, and not much success on the track. In 2006, it was announced that Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. had patched up their relationship, and Tony Jr. would be on top of the pit box. The two have been together since then, except for brief stints where Tony Gibson, currently the crew chief for Dale Jr.'s old ride, the 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet.
In 2008, Dale Jr. left the company that his father had built to allow his children to have a place to race. In his move to Rick Hendrick Motorsports, he insisted that Tony Eury Jr. be his crew chief for 2008. After winning the Budweiser Shootout, and a Daytona qualifying race, Dale Jr. has run a rather consistent season, finally winning a points race at Michigan, just barely.
Over the last couple of weeks, at both Indianapolis and Pocono, Dale Jr. has not been very happy with all of his crew chief's decisions. At Pocono, Dale Jr. was noticibly upset. Is this the beginning of another split with Tony Jr.? We all certainly hope not, but one has to wonder.
Darien Grubb, who has filled in as crew chief for other teams at Hendrick Motorports, is in his own right a race winning crew chief. He spends a lot of time on the 88 pit box during the races. What he and Tony Eury Jr. talk about during the races is not known, or even if they talk at all. One would assume that Darien has some input, but at exactly what level, I don't know.
I guess what I'm getting at is the age old question for every Dale Jr. fan. Do the cousins work well together, really? Is the crew chief getting the wrong clues from the driver? Is the driver not giving good feedback to the crew chief? Should Jr. decide that family loyalty just isn't enough, and work toward winning races and championships at all costs, regardless of who's calling the shots on top of the pit box? I don't know the answers at all.
My hopes are that Rick Hendrick listened to Dale Jr. on the radio the last couple of weeks. I hope that this week, before heading to Watkins Glen, Rick will sit down with Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. and talk out what they need to do to inprove the perfomance of the team. The 88 car is currently 2nd in points, and though that's a great thing, they will have to be nearly perfect for the final races of the season, during the Chase for the Cup, to have even a chance of winning the championship. The main thing is that the driver and the crew chief have GOT to be on the same page during the race. The crew chief needs to get good information from the driver, and the driver has to be able to trust his crew chief.
I'm not sure that Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. are at that level yet, at least on trust. I hope they will be able to make it so for the remaining races this season.