Turning Junior around is Hendrick's job
CONCORD, N.C. -- These should be the best of times for Rick Hendrick. His drivers hold the top three spots in the Sprint Cup standings with five races remaining. He is almost guaranteed a ninth championship, whether it's Jimmie Johnson with a historic fourth straight, 50-year-old Mark Martin with his first or Jeff Gordon with his fifth.
Yet before Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, there was Hendrick talking about what arguably will be the greatest challenge of his career.
Saving Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"We're not talking about Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin," the owner of Hendrick Motorsports said as darkness fell on the track. "We're not talking about how many races we've won  this year. We're talking about the 88 car."
Nobody should be surprised. Hendrick isn't.
Flash back to June 2007 when Hendrick signed NASCAR's most popular driver. He told the world the pressure was on him to give Earnhardt what he needed to win races and contend for championships.
As far as most were concerned, there were no more excuses for Earnhardt. No more blaming Dale Earnhardt Inc. for not having the best equipment. No blaming stepmother Teresa Earnhardt for whatever went wrong.
"If he's winning, it's because of his talent," Hendrick said at the time. "If he's not, it's because of my not giving him good stuff."
Now let's flash forward to Friday at LMS. Earnhardt was emotionally drained, "at the end of my rope," as he proclaimed. The 51-race winless streak that was about to become 52 and a position of 22nd in points had him groping for answers.
It was painfully sad.
It was like he was crying out for help.
At least one person close to Earnhardt says he was.
"It's killing me to see what he's going through," said Tony Gibson, Ryan Newman's crew chief and the crew chief for Earnhardt for 12 races in 2007 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "It's not fair. He doesn't deserve that at all.
"He's a great friend of mine and it hurts to see him going through this. Tony Eury Jr. is a great friend of mine, too. Both of them got the wrong deal there. Tony Jr. just needed better supportive guys around him to make that work."
Hendrick probably doesn't want to hear that. He separated Earnhardt and his crew chief/cousin, Eury, in June after a 40th-place finish at LMS that the owner called pitiful and embarrassing. He did it despite his philosophy to fix something instead of change it.
He moved Lance McGrew into the pressure cooker. He committed to throw every resource at turning things around. Prior to Saturday's race, in which Earnhardt was 39th, he committed to sticking with McGrew for the rest of this season.
He hinted that McGrew might remain in that position in 2010, again reminding of his philosophy to fix instead of tear apart.
As far as Gibson is concerned, Hendrick tore things apart when he replaced Eury. It's only one man's opinion, but it's the opinion of a man who has known Earnhardt for more than seven years.
It's the opinion of a man who has been by Earnhardt's side through the good times, such as 2006 when he finished fifth in points and was only 78 out of the lead with two races remaining.
"Tony Jr. was his only support guy [at HMS]," Gibson said. "He was his last rock there. When they kicked that out from under his bucket, he's got nothing."
What Gibson is saying is that not everybody on Earnhardt's team, which for the most part didn't come with Eury from DEI, is behind him. He's right. I've witnessed examples of it.
Eury wasn't made available to discuss the situation, but he was quoted on FoxSports.com last weekend as saying he knew things wouldn't get better when he was removed.
"Tony Jr. was the right guy for that job," Gibson said. "You had guys who didn't believe in Tony Jr. and maybe Tony Jr. didn't believe in some of his guys. You've got to believe in your coach. If you don't believe in your coach, you're screwed. I don't think that was the problem."
Gibson wasn't taking a shot at Hendrick. He understands the man that supplies engines and chassis to his driver was doing what he thought was best to turn Earnhardt's season around. But Gibson said he believes wholeheartedly Hendrick made the wrong decision. And he believes it would be equally wrong to leave the current team intact next season.
There's no reason to think otherwise. Earnhardt's average finish was 21.3 in 12 races with Eury. It is 23.8 in the 19 races since McGrew took over, though there have been some unfortunate racing circumstances that could have made things better if they had not occurred.
"The situation Dale Jr. is in right now you've got to start completely over," Gibson said. "It's like lug nuts on a wheel. If four of them are working good and one of them has a thread screwed up on it, it's going to continue to screw the other four up."
Gibson said he believes that more than ever after watching Earnhardt in Friday night's television interview on ESPN's "NASCAR Now." He saw and heard the same frustration that other media saw in Earnhardt earlier in the day.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven for six crew chiefs in his NASCAR career, with Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr. calling the majority of those races. His best season came under Eury Sr. in 2004 with six wins, including the Daytona 500. Here's how Junior has fared under each:
|Crew chief, seasons||Races||Top 5s (wins)|
|Tony Eury Sr., 1999-2004||183||52 (15)|
|Pete Rondeau, 2005||12||3 (0)|
|Steve Hmiel, 2005||14||2 (1)|
|Tony Eury Jr., 2005-09||118||28 (2)|
|Tony Gibson, 2007||12||2 (0)|
|Lance McGrew, 2009-?||19||1 (0)|
"He just needs a change, a whole package change," Gibson said. "Listen to his voice. He's asking for that. I've been around him for a long time. I know."
He also knows what Earnhardt meant when he said his crew chief needed to be a dictator, somebody like Tony Eury Sr., to turn things around.
Eury Sr. helped Earnhardt to two Nationwide Series titles and 16 of his 18 Cup wins. He was a father figure, somebody Earnhardt would listen to without constantly arguing back, as he did with Eury Jr.
And even when Earnhardt argued with Eury Sr., he didn't take it the wrong way.
"A lot of the stuff he says, they take it personal," Gibson said of Earnhardt's team. "It's like a coach yelling at a football player after missing a punt. You have to separate that.
"Right now, they're in a position where they can't separate it."
Ask any crew chief in the garage and he'll tell you complete support is essential to success. It's why Johnson is so dominant. It's why Kurt Busch continues to run well even though crew chief Pat Tryson is leaving after the season.
"It's huge," Tryson said of that solidarity. "If guys don't like each other, if guys are bad-mouthing each other, it tears the team apart."
And confidence is destroyed. Earnhardt apparently has lost his and doesn't know how to get it back. That puts the onus on Hendrick.
Hendrick is frustrated but not panicky. He insists he's never had a driver who didn't lose confidence. He reminds that Earnhardt has more pressure than most.
"I've got more pressure," Hendrick added.
Every team has pressure. Jay Frye, the general manager at Red Bull Racing, has done everything but bring in a witch doctor to turn around the fortunes of Brian Vickers since the Chase began.
But even Frye admits Earnhardt is a special case.
"If anybody can turn him around, Rick Hendrick can," said Frye, reminding that Earnhardt's season wouldn't look quite so bad if it weren't for bad luck.
Those are what-if games. Earnhardt is tired of if, if, if.
Dr. Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who works with HMS employees, isn't surprised. He said the loss of confidence is unique to NASCAR more than any other sport because drivers identify "how well they do on the track with their own personal life."
"It's amazing how fast they can lose confidence," said Stark, not commenting on Earnhardt specifically. "They have a hard time separating themselves from what they do and who they are.
"They're like, 'I'm a race car driver and I drive. That's who I am and what I do. So if I don't do well, I'm not very confident, I'm not very happy, life sucks.'"
That sounded like the Earnhardt we all saw and heard on Friday.
"He has no confidence in himself because nobody else has confidence in him," Gibson said.
That doesn't mean it's too late. Everybody from Richard Childress (who won six championships with Earnhardt's father) to Hendrick to Gibson says Earnhardt can become a championship contender.
"I don't know if you've ever heard the song that Hank Williams Jr. sings, 'It's tough living [in the shadow] of a very famous man,'" Childress said. "But Junior can still drive a race car. He can compete. He can win. And he will win a championship someday."
Gibson believes that as much as he believes the decisions that got Earnhardt in this dark place were wrong. Hearing him speak so passionately would make the most pessimistic Junior Hater agree.
But time is running out. Earnhardt is 35.
"It's going to have to be the right situation and the right group of guys who believe in him," Gibson said. "Give Dale Jr. what Dale Jr. wants, what he needs to drive the race car, and he'll be fine."
If not, Earnhardt will keep sinking lower and Hendrick will be answering questions about how he plans to turn the No. 88 team around before the shine is off another championship trophy.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.