- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A shirtless man wearing cut-off jean shorts blocked the road to one of the exits of Michigan International Raceway as he proudly waved a large No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. flag late Sunday afternoon.
Not far away a large group of fans holding beverages lined the campground fence shouting "Junior" at the top of their lungs.
The many fans who follow NASCAR's most popular driver were out in full force celebrating the end of a 76-race losing streak that dated back to Richmond in 2006.
It was a party that lasted long after Earnhardt coasted across the finish line without enough fuel to do a burnout or make it to Victory Lane without a push from his crew.
A week ago, some of these same people likely were among those calling for the head of Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.
Many questioned Eury's pit strategy during the first 14 races this year, some blaming him for the losing streak being so long. Many said Earnhardt was too loyal to his cousin, who made the move with him from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports during the offseason.
Forty-eight hours before the win, Earnhardt found himself defending Eury in the infield conference center at MIS.
"I don't know for sure whether I would be able to match the success I have now with someone else," he explained, choosing his words carefully. "But what I do know is how good he is. Do we work perfectly together all the time? No, I don't think we do, I don't think anyone does. Am I happy with Tony Jr.? Yes.
"Do I get more out of working with him being that we are family and more like brothers than I would with any other crew chief? Winning with him, eventually when that happens again, and having top-5 and top-10 runs is way more satisfying for me personally than it would be with anyone else."
Earnhardt didn't have to wait long for that win.
Fittingly, the first person he thanked over his radio was Eury.
It was Eury's decision to gamble on fuel mileage, understanding his driver likely would finish around 25th if he pitted or ran out of gas. It was his calm demeanor over the final laps that kept Earnhardt focused on the prize.
"It's a little underestimated, but that trust is there every time I climb in the car," Earnhardt said. "I would go do something else if I didn't believe in my crew chief and didn't have faith in what kind of race car he built.
"And if I didn't have that option and opportunity, I don't feel like that this would be very enjoyable."
Because they're family Earnhardt and Eury have a relationship like none other in the garage. They split after Earnhardt missed the Chase in 2005, in part because DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt and director of competition Richie Gilmore believed their arguing had become counterproductive.
They also wanted to strengthen the team of Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt suggested he and Eury had "begun knotting each other up."
They soon learned the knots were what made them work so well together. They were united for the final 10 races of the 2006 season with Earnhardt safely in the Chase at sixth.
They had five top-10s and six finishes of 13th or better in the 10-race playoff, finishing fifth overall.
The only time they've been apart since is when Eury left DEI late last season to begin learning the system at Hendrick.
"I'm his worst critic; he's my worst critic," Earnhardt said. "We want the best for each other. We want to see each other have an amazing time at this, and see each other just experience so much success."
When they disagree, they may go to the back of the hauler, close the door and "just go at it." While that may lead to hard feelings and a separation by another pair, it works for them.
"Because by the time it's over, we get the result we want, and especially with this opportunity and this equipment," Earnhardt said. "And we go, 'Man, thanks for hanging in there. We did the right thing; this worked out.'"
It worked out because Eury and Earnhardt say they think alike, down to not worrying about the losing streak.
"Because I've seen him lead laps, I've seen what he's capable of doing and we've run up front and we've had fast, fast racecars and get caught up in accidents and stuff like that," Eury said. "It's like you love winning and you love seeing that guy's face beside of you just happy that you won, but I'm just as content because I feel the same way he does.''
Team owner Rick Hendrick was as happy for Eury, as he stood in Victory Lane drenched in Amp and rain drops, as he was for Earnhardt.
"He's in a no-win deal," he said of Eury. "If Junior wins, it's going to be talent. If he makes a mistake or we don't win, it's because Tony Jr. didn't do the right thing."
Eury isn't like most of the crew chiefs at Hendrick. He doesn't have an engineering degree. He looks and talks more like the mechanic at your local garage.
But Hendrick appreciates the wealth of knowledge and old-school workmanship Eury has brought to his organization. He wouldn't have kept him with Earnhardt if he didn't believe that was the best recipe for a championship.
Earnhardt hopes that never changes. He wants to work with Eury forever. He said he firmly believes that one day his cousin will be considered one of the best ever in the business.
The last thing he wants to do is have to beat him with another driver.
"He pushes me and I need it, and I push him to make sure he's doing what he's supposed to do," Earnhardt said. "It's old-school, our ways of doing it. Hell, we 'MF' each other on the radio stuff, but I think it's old-school."
The two were at their best over the final laps on Sunday. Earnhardt desperately wanted Eury to tell him whether to race against Jamie McMurray and other drivers coming up on him or continue to conserve gas.
Me and him are both real lucky. Man, this is storybook. So I'm fortunate to have the job I've got and be in the position that I am in this sport, and I'm fortunate to have my cousin on my side with me every step of the way.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Eury was so quiet that Earnhardt finally said, "You don't want to tell me."
"He was like, 'Ooohhh, I don't know. 10-4,'" Earnhardt recalled with a laugh. I was, 'What the hell does 10-4 mean?' He didn't have an answer. He's like: 'I don't know what to tell you, man.'
"I said, 'Well, who's leading?' They took the frigging scoreboard down, and you can't see who is leading -- I can't read that thing [new high tech scoreboard] in the middle. I'm like, 'Well, hell, I don't know who is leading.'"
Eury finally informed Earnhardt he was leading.
"I'm like, 'Oh, hell, I should probably try to win,' because there was five to go or four to go and I passed Jamie back, and I started saving, which Jamie passed me back, and I'm like, 'Dang, are we saving or racing?' So it was really comical, actually."
Such comedy might drive some owners crazy. Some might say it's unhealthy for a driver and crew chief to communicate that way.
Earnhardt can't imagine it any other way.
"He's one of the few people in this world where I can lay it down," he said. "And I can even be wrong, you know what I mean, but I can tell him like it is and even if I'm wrong, terribly wrong, he doesn't change exactly how he feels about me.
"Me and him are both real lucky. Man, this is storybook. So I'm fortunate to have the job I've got and be in the position that I am in this sport, and I'm fortunate to have my cousin on my side with me every step of the way."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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