Slow-starting 88 team meets, airs it out

Updated: March 25, 2009, 6:58 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick has no plans to separate crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I have no intention of making any changes," the Hendrick Motorsports team owner said during a Wednesday afternoon conference call. "I have all intentions of making it better. These guys are working their butts off ... and I have to believe in the next few weeks we're going to see some real success out of that crowd.

"My philosophy is you tweak it and inch forward before you cut it apart and completely rebuild it. I see a lot of effort from everybody on the team."

I'm not ready to make that call. I'm not even close. I'm convinced they are better together.

-- Rick Hendrick on keeping crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. together.

Hendrick noted that Earnhardt, Eury, team engineers and much of the top management at HMS spent three hours on Wednesday morning discussing ways to improve the team that is 19th in points heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway.

"There's no ways these guys sat in a meeting for three hours not to come out with a plan that's going to make them better," he said.

Hendrick said Earnhardt and Eury each have told him they would part if he didn't feel they were working well together.

"That's my call," he said. "I'm not ready to make that call. I'm not even close. I'm convinced they are better together."

He is even more convinced now than ever, citing Wednesday's meeting and Earnhardt's recent commitment to a better workout and diet as reasons.

"Dale is as focused or maybe even more focused as I've seen since he's been here," Hendrick said. "I give him a tremendous amount of credit. You can tell a young kid you need to work out, you need to work better, you need to do this and that.

"But Dale has taken all the suggestions to heart and we've got to give him the best stuff out there."

Earnhardt's relationship with his cousin has come under question many times over the years, but it came to a head after a rough start to this season that had NASCAR's most popular driver 35th in points after two races.

The team has shown improvement the past three weeks, accumulating the 10th-most points with finishes of 10th, 11th and 14th. That hasn't stopped the criticism, and Earnhardt fired back last Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"The guy I feel bad for is Tony Jr.," Earnhardt said during a pre-qualifying news conference on Friday. "He gets criticized so bad. Everybody in this room ... knows how smart of a guy he is, certainly knows he's a good mechanic and a solid crew chief.

"He just wanted to do this for a living just like I do. I'll take the fall. I'd rather be crucified than him. Every time I read in the paper that people are on his case I feel like I'm sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed."

Hendrick compared the heat Earnhardt and Eury have taken to what Jeff Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte went through last season when Gordon went winless. He kept the two together and they currently top the point standings. "Everybody was saying, 'You need to replace Stevie and you need to do something because they aren't running [well],' " Hendrick said. "Last year at this time, the No. 88 [Earnhardt] was the best team we had in the complex and they were the ones leading the charge.

"Then we kind of fell off toward about the Chase. I can tell you we've looked at everything. Dale Jr. is working out. He's changed his eating habits. We have all the folks we've got who hopefully and supposedly know what to do here focused on that team."

Hendrick expected this kind of scrutiny when Earnhardt agreed to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. for HMS after the 2007 season.

"There is a lot of pressure on him because of who he is and there is a lot of pressure on me because of him being here," he said. "But that's going to make us all work harder. "I just think we've got the right combination. We're going to prove that to you folks pretty soon."

That doesn't mean Hendrick is looking for wins right away from a team that has led only one lap in five races.

"You just don't go from running 10th to winning every race," Hendrick said. "The idea is to keep inching it up, getting it better working on areas. Our goal is to make the Chase and win races.

"To lead and be competitive, that's always been my goal."

Mark Martin, Earnhardt's teammate at HMS, expects improved results soon. "The biggest thing Junior needs is support, a pat on the back," he said. "The guy's doing an incredible job. He's carrying a heavier load than any human being should be expected.

"He's fast. ... I just think right now he has to keep focused and not listen to all the mania that is going on around him. That team is going to be strong."

David Newton covers Sprint Cup racing for ESPN.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter