- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
- 0 Shares
We Dale Earnhardt Jr. apologists are down to one last excuse for him.
There's one more safety valve, one more person to be jettisoned, before it's all on Junior.
That would be Lance McGrew, the interim crew chief named Thursday to replace Tony Eury Jr. on the No. 88 team.
If Junior still doesn't win, no doubt McGrew will come under the same sort of fire from fans and pundits that Eury did.
The troubleshooters assigned to help McGrew, engineers Rex Stump and Brian Whitesell, have impeccable credentials. Stump is the lead chassis engineer for all of Hendrick Motorsports. Whitesell's success goes so far back that he was Ray Evernham's secret weapon in launching Jeff Gordon to stardom.
So McGrew is the name that will be flung about Web sites and chat rooms, for better or for worse, after Whitesell runs the team Sunday at Dover for the shakedown sans Eury race.
But once HMS settles on a permanent replacement for Eury, the only common denominator left in all these tempests, all these ups and downs, all these years, will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior Nation is all aflutter now with the notion that he somehow will snap out of it, gather momentum and roar into the Chase, making it just under the wire.
I doubt that. I doubt it a lot.
Earnhardt is 19th in the points after 12 races. No driver in that position at that time has moved higher than 14th -- still out of the Chase. That was Greg Biffle in 2007.
Whitesell and Stump will give Earnhardt the chassis setups he reportedly was missing with Eury, the ones that have taken all three of his teammates -- Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- to wins this season.
Can Junior drive this supposedly revolutionary combination? Will he accept it?
We shall see.
When Rick Hendrick orders an all-out assault on a problem, he means it. Nothing will be spared.
"We're going to put our full resources toward improving the situation," he said in a statement Thursday. "It's going to be a collective effort that includes all of our drivers, all of our crew chiefs and all of our engineers.
"Everyone in our company will be involved at some level."
So already, in a way, it's all on Junior.
I feel for him, terribly, but then I've felt for him since he was 5 years old and his daddy was spanking the stuffin' out of him for standing up on a chair at a party at the old Darlington Country Club.
From that moment to now, I've realized just how hard it is to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He came into NASCAR with enormous heralding, won two Nationwide championships and sent the expectations through the ionosphere, and ever since, he's been struggling to live up to them -- first completely, then partially, now just a little bit now just a win here and there.
Now he has been given everything he needs, every possible resource of the richest, best, most powerful team ever in NASCAR.
If it can't send him to big-time winning, there is nobody left who can.
Never, ever did his father face anything like the pressure Junior is facing now. Dale Earnhardt came up off the dirt tracks with little heralding, and the only issue of his career was whether he could win one race, the Daytona 500. He had to answer for that only a few days a year, during Speedweeks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to answer for, and live with, his shortcomings 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
Remember, it was "Eury's fault" once before, in 2005 at Dale Earnhardt Inc., when Teresa Earnhardt split up the two first cousins who've been close since childhood.
Steve Hmiel guided Earnhardt to one win as interim crew chief, but otherwise, the breakup was a disaster. Junior and Junior were back together by season's end.
Two other crew chiefs came up winless with Junior -- Pete Rondeau during the '05 experiment, and Tony Gibson during Eury's suspension for tech violations in '07.
Lest we forget amid the Eury bashing, Earnhardt has only one win without a Eury in his pits, the one with Hmiel. His other 17 Cup wins were with Eurys there.
Fifteen wins came with Tony Eury Sr., "Pops," officially listed as crew chief. But Tony Jr. was car chief then, and they were more co-crew chiefs, so that inside the garages we thought of them as one -- "the Eurys."
Other than Pops, Tony Jr. has sent Earnhardt to more victories, two, than all of Earnhardt's other crew chiefs combined.
Now the Hendrick armada is assembled around Junior. Every person, every resource, on the team.
We shall know soon, either with McGrew or his successor, whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. will ever be a big-time winner.
And so will he.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rick Hendrick promised to use every resource available to strengthen the so-called weak link in his Sprint Cup garage. In other words, the pressure is on for Dale Earnhardt Jr.