Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief replaced
CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick knew the pressure was on him to make Dale Earnhardt Jr. a champion when NASCAR's most popular driver arrived at Hendrick Motorsports last season.
He never felt that more than on Thursday, when he announced he had replaced Tony Eury Jr. as Earnhardt's crew chief, beginning with this weekend's race at Dover.
"I can tell you this is the most pressure I've felt in racing," Hendrick said.
Hendrick named Lance McGrew as Earnhardt's interim crew chief beginning with the June 7 race at Pocono. Team manager Brian Whitesell will serve as the crew chief at Dover while McGrew works with rookie Brad Keselowski.
Whitesell and Rex Stump, Hendrick's lead chassis engineer, will support McGrew on a full-time basis in hopes of turning around a team that is 19th in points.
"The pressure that I thought I would have having these guys ... I was concerned with having to manage Dale Earnhardt Jr. the superstar,'' Hendrick said. "I thought that was going to be the pressure. I never thought it would be a competition thing or failing to run pressure.
"This pressure is the worst kind of pressure because the better your [other] teams do, and then you have a team that is falling behind, then the world feels like you're not paying attention to it. I take that personally."
Hendrick thought as early as last week that Earnhardt and Eury would rally and have a shot at making the Chase. But after they finished 40th in Monday's rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, the third consecutive finish of 27th or worse, he realized a change had to be made.
"We were pitiful, and all of us were embarrassed," Hendrick said. "I felt like it needed to happen and we couldn't wait until the end of the year. I just didn't feel it was fair to our sponsors, our fans and to those two guys to show up anymore changing nothing.
"We were working our butts off behind the scenes. It wasn't producing any fruit. I hate doing it at this time of the year. I hate having to do it period. I'd rather work out thins. My MO is to fix it, not change it. In this case I thought it was time for that."
Hendrick said he notified Earnhardt by phone on Wednesday and told Eury of the decision in person at Hendrick Motorsports. He said both accepted the decision, almost sensing relief that it was made.
"Tony Jr. is a good crew chief," Earnhardt told reporters during an appearance in Detroit. "We've had success, but this year, we aren't even mediocre. And the last couple weeks, we've arguably been one of the worst teams on the track.
"He's really, really talented, and I feel a lot of disappointment and failure for not being able to take advantage of that. Maybe the truth is that we just aren't meant to do it together. That's tough to admit, and even tougher to believe."
Hendrick said that's why he was motivated to make a move.
"It hurts me to see those two guys as frustrated as they've been and I can't help them," Hendrick said. "You can see it in their faces. I've seen Jeff Gordon get out of the car and throw his hands up. I've seen Jimmie Johnson do it.
"We had to find some sort of spark to get the car back to running good and everybody feels better about it and everybody's confidence is back."
Hendrick is optimistic that Earnhardt can rally and make the Chase.
"We're going to put our full resources toward improving the situation and winning races," Hendrick said. "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 on some level."
McGrew, who plans a thorough evaluation of the No. 88 team's operations, believes the team has been preparing for races differently than Hendrick's other three teams.
"I just believe there were some theories that they were using to making decisions by, that weren't necessarily the same theory that's on the rest of the complex," McGrew told ESPN.com's Marty Smith.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven for five 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)|
"The idea of having a multiple-car team is you can lean on your teammates," McGrew said. "And you have to be within the same page to get any information. A lot of times they were not on the same page."
Earnhardt and Eury had one win, 19 top-10s and 11 top-5s in 48 races after moving from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to HMS in 2008. Eury will move into what officials called a "key role" in HMS' research and development group.
"I have mixed feelings, and that's just natural," Eury said. "But I enjoy working at Hendrick Motorsports, and this is where I want to be. I'll do whatever I can to help all of our teams and try to be a part of another championship. I think a new challenge will be good."
Thursday's announcement came two months after Hendrick said he wasn't close to breaking up Earnhardt and Eury.
Hendrick said then Earnhardt and Eury each told him they would part if he didn't feel they were working well together. Race day communication has been a major issue, one that began when they were at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and one Hendrick began addressing last season when the team faltered in the Chase.
With Earnhardt 203 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin for the 12th and final Chase spot, Hendrick decided the time was now.
"Tony and I talked through this last night," Hendrick said. "I want him here, he wants to be here, and he's going to be a big contributor to our future success. I have an unbelievable amount of respect for the job he's done and for the caliber of person that he is."
Earnhardt's relationship with his first cousin has come under question many times over the years. 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.
Earnhardt came to Eury's rescue at Bristol with his fans screaming for a change.
"He gets criticized so bad," he said. "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."
Three straight poor performances apparently sealed Eury's fate.
McGrew, 41, has posted wins in all three of NASCAR's top three series. He won the Oct. 2006 Cup race with Brian Vickers at Talladega and helped Vickers earn the 2003 Nationwide Series title.
Most recently he helped rookie Brad Keselowski to a seventh-place finish in the May 9 Cup race at Darlington.
McGrew and Earnhardt teamed in three Nationwide races last season, posting top 10 finishes at Teas and LMS and a 15th at Atlanta.
"I like Lance. He's going to tell me like it is, and that's what I want," Earnhardt said. "I've worked with him in the past, and I also have a whole lot of trust in Brian. He's going to make sure I've got what I need every week. I'm not worried at all about that. And who knows? This combination could be amazing."David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.