<
>

Fixing the 88 from Tony Eury Jr.'s eyes

8/18/2010 - NASCAR

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Tony Eury Jr. works feverishly to prepare Danica Patrick's Nationwide Series car for another practice at Michigan International Speedway late Thursday afternoon. He does so without being second- or third-guessed, without being scrutinized for every move he makes.

He does so without being blamed for Patrick's struggles.

He shouldn't have been blamed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles, either.

"When I left over there, I told them I'd love to help them make it better," says Eury, standing in the back of the No. 7 JR Motorsports hauler. "It is what it is. They've got a long row to hoe. I knew when I left they wasn't going to fix it."

They haven't.

In 48 Sprint Cup races at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt and his crew chief cousin combined for one win, 11 top-5s and 19 top-10s. They made the Chase in 2008 and had an average finish of 14.1 that season, the third best of Earnhardt's career. They also were 19th in points, 203 behind teammate Mark Martin for the 12th and final playoff spot, when they separated in 2009 just before the Coca-Cola 600.

Two shy of the same number of races with crew chief Lance McGrew, NASCAR's most popular driver has no wins, three top-5s and eight top-10s. They didn't make the Chase in 2009, and they probably won't this season as Earnhardt sits 16th in points, 121 behind Martin for the final spot with four races remaining.

Is this just cause to make another change? Should McGrew get the blame just as Eury, a person Earnhardt called "really, really talented" at the time of their separation, did? Should the crew chief get thrown under the bus once again and blamed for poor communication?

No.

Eury seems to agree.

"There's too many people that put it on a driver, that put it on a crew chief," he says. "It's a team effort. It's not one person. It's a whole organization working toward one goal to make that happen and everybody believing in one another that the next guy is doing his part. If the next guy ain't doing his part, then you step up and say you're not doing your part."

The numbers between Eury and McGrew aren't different by enough to say either is at fault. The numbers suggest you have to look past the crew chief.

Some might say they suggest you have to look at Earnhardt. Short of putting him in the No. 48 of four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson with crew chief Chad Knaus -- which likely would end in bloodshed -- team owner Rick Hendrick seems to have done everything possible to help the No. 88 succeed.

He moved Chris Heroy, the lead engineer given much credit for Martin's amazing run a year ago, to the 88 team. He restructured the 88 and Martin's 5 shop to work in tandem more like the adjacent 48 and 24 shop that builds cars for Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

No major improvement.

Baby steps at best.

One could argue that it has gone backward. Earnhardt led 986 laps at HMS in a season and 12 races with Eury. He has led only 124 laps in about the same amount of time with McGrew.

Junior Nation is so frustrated that some of you thought Hendrick should have given Kasey Kahne Earnhardt's seat next year instead of making Kahne spend a year with Red Bull Racing before replacing Martin.

But don't blame the crew chief. Don't blame the driver, really. As Earnhardt said a few weeks ago after finishing 27th at Pocono, "We're not very good, we're not a good team."

"One thing we had that was strong when we were at DEI, it was brother eat brother," Eury says. "I mean, we were there for one another. We would take a shot for one another."

Subtle.

Perhaps Hendrick's mistake was not bringing more than Eury to work specifically with Earnhardt at HMS. Perhaps he should have hired the rest of Earnhardt's team that played a big role in the driver winning 17 races with Eury the car chief or crew chief from 2000 to 2006.

It was basically that group, with Tony Gibson as crew chief, that helped Martin to 11 top-10s in 24 starts for DEI in 2008. It was basically that group that helped Ryan Newman make the Chase last season at Stewart-Haas Racing.

It's a group that already had chemistry.

"You don't do this as long as I have and win as many races as I have and go over there and win one race and not make the Chase," Eury says.

But is breaking up Earnhardt's team that hasn't won since the first Michigan race in 2008 the solution? That is a decision Hendrick must make by the end of the season, perhaps by the start of the Chase if the 88 doesn't have a miraculous rally.

You could throw Ron Malec, Johnson's car chief, into the crew chief role, but there are no guarantees that will work.

Maybe the best thing to do is leave Earnhardt and McGrew alone to figure things out like Eury and Patrick. Let them continue to grow and develop the type of chemistry it takes to communicate, takes to be a winning combination.

Sometimes shake-ups are good. Sometimes they mean starting all over and going through even more growing pains.

"First thing you do is go over there and get to know some of the 24 and 48 guys and how they're doing it because they've definitely got it figured out," Eury says.

No doubt. Since Earnhardt arrived at HMS in 2008, the 48 and 24 shop has produced 20 wins, 78-top 5s and 115-top 10s and has won two championships. In the same span, the 5 and 88 shop has six wins, 34 top-5s and 61 top-10s.

So why has one building succeeded and the other not? You could say it is the talent of Johnson and Gordon. You could say it's simply hard to put together four great teams.

Eury believes it goes much deeper.

"The chemistry and the people," he says. "There's nothing else about it. It's two different worlds. I give Chad and Stevie [Letarte, Gordon's crew chief] credit. They've got it going on. It's pretty remarkable to walk in there and see the organization and how that team pulls together and the people they've got. They're two lucky guys."

He's right, it is a remarkable situation. But it goes much deeper than simply chemistry. Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, says it is a combination of a lot of people with a deep foundation that began with the 24 team, combined with two drivers who weekly provide the consistency it takes to fine-tune.

There's been no consistency in the 5 and 88 shop, no long-term commitment to the same people pulling in the same direction. Look at the driver turnover alone, from Kyle Busch to Brian Vickers to Casey Mears to Earnhardt and Martin.

"If you want what the 24 and 48 has, don't think you're going to bring in a team or hire one guy and get it done," Gustafson says. "You're going to get it methodically and over time. Ive been there with Tony, I've been there with Lance, I've been there with Dale. I'm telling you, you can't build that overnight.

"You could put Chad over there and it would take time."

Eury wasn't given that time. As a result, he never saw all the pieces come together.

"You see parts of it," he says. "You don't see the whole thing. That's the part you've got to fix."

Until that is fixed, the crew chief or driver or both will continue to be blamed. Fortunately for Eury, he doesn't have to deal with it.

"It's their deal," he says.

Eury's deal is helping Patrick make the transition from Indy cars to stock cars. So far, that's been a struggle. The face of GoDaddy.com has a best finish of 24th in five races, that coming at Chicagoland in her most recent appearance.

This weekend at Michigan, she's being asked to drive the new Nationwide car with a splitter for the first time.

Expectations aren't high, and that's OK with Eury.

"You're not under the microscope," he says. "You're not expected to go out and win. If you do, it's a total surprise. Those kind of things are cool. You're not getting hassled when things don't go right, but when things do go right, it's good."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.