By Joe Dunn
The racing world was not exactly shocked Thursday when Rick Hendrick announced a shake up in the 88 team that included replacing Tony Eury Jr with Lance McGrew as new the Crew Chief. Along with McGrew comes oneof Hendrick Motorsports top engineers, Rex Stump. Brian Whitesell will sit atop the box at Dover and McGrew will take over at Pocono..
Dale Earnhardt Jr, in his 11 year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has competed in 339 points races working with five different Crew Chiefs. Will this change be the right one?
Jr began in the series with his NASCAR Nationwide Series Crew Chief, Tony Eury Sr. Together they complied an average finish of 15.8 over 6 seasons in 183 races. In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr enjoyed a lot of success and popularity with 6 wins, 16 top 5’s and 21 top10’s, finishing the season fifth in points. At the end of 2004, Tony Sr was bumped upstairs to director of competition for DEI, Pete Rondeau was named as his replacement.
From the beginning of the 2005 season, it was obvious that Jr was not happy with Rondeau, and made no secret that he wanted Tony Jr, his former car chief who had been moved to crew chief the 15 car with Michael Waltrip, so the switch after only 9 races surprised nobody.
Steve Hmeil was a manager with a lot of Crew Chief experience and Jr had a lot of respect for him, so Steve taking over the duties was better received than Rondeau. Hmeil remained as the crew chief for 17 races (average finish 23.4) but it didn’t take long before Jr voiced his demand to get Tony Eury Jr from the 15 car.
Through all of the noise, Jr was assured that Tony Jr. would be moved to his team for 2006. The announcement was the final straw for Michael Waltrip who was enjoying success with Tony Jr. Waltrip announced in August of 2005 that he would leave DEI after the season because of the move. A month later Tony Jr was moved to the 8 car.
Tony Eury Jr moved to Dale Jr’s team in September of 2005, and with the exception of 6 races in 2007, when Tony Gibson filled in as Jr’s crew chief while Tony Jr. served a 6 race NASCAR suspension for illegal wing brackets at Darlington, Tony Jr has remained as Earnhardt’s crew chief up to and including this weekend at Dover.
How Junior Nation reacts to this change is up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. In 2005, his fans declared that Jr’s problems were solely because of the crew chiefs. The cry was, put Tony Jr in and Dale Jr will win the Cup. In 2006, Jr. finished 5th in points. With two engine failures and a total of 4 races where he did not finish on the lead lap, his fans blamed the engine failures for not winning the championship.
Dale Jr had made it clear before the 2007 season began that he was not happy at DEI and was demanding an ownership stake in DEI to remain. The public battle between Junior Nation and Teresa Earnhardt began with a healthy dose of behind the scenes pushing from Dale’s sister Kelly. By the 10th race, Junior had an average finish of 18th with 3 DNF’s. The Junior Nation cry was that Teresa was intentionally giving the 8 team bad equipment. The next week, Jr announced his move to HMS, and Junior fans howled with predictions of an instant championship.
Well 2008 had come and gone and again no Championship. By late in the season, the fans started blaming Tony Jr. Junior finished the season 12th. After 12 races in 2009, the No 88 team is 19th 203 points out of the last Chase slot. With one top 5 and 3 top 10’s, the crew chief can not be blamed for all the troubles. For an 11 year driver, the numerous pit road errors by the driver are Juniors alone.
So, will Crew Chief No, 6 be the one to take Jr to that elusive NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship? Only time will tell. Rick Hendrick made it clear that this team needs to improve and improve NOW, he expects this team to be in the Chase, but looking in from the outside, that hardly seems possible.
I think anything better than a top 15 finish in points is a real stretch. McGrew is a good, not great crew chief, and Jr is a good, not great driver. My call on the 88 team for 2009, between 15th and 19th in final points. Look for any chance of serious improvement to this team to come in 2010, but a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in Juniors future? Not likely.