Struggling NASCAR star booed at Coca-Cola 600
CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was jeered by the fans, criticized by his fired crew chief and ripped by his uncle, the man who typically has been his most loyal supporter.
Add in his season-long slump and the five-car accident he caused in the Coca-Cola 600 by running into his teammate, and the situation becomes all too clear: NASCAR's biggest star is in big, big trouble.
"It's been a rough week," Earnhardt said Monday, a day after finishing 33rd in his most tumultuous race of the year. "All of us at DEI want to win so bad, things happen or are said in the heat of the moment. It's the way it always has been.
"That's family, ya know? Win or lose, with the focus from the fans and the media on me and on this team, we've had some sort of drama or controversy every other week for five or six years."
Yes, but it's never been so obvious or so intense for Earnhardt, the flagship driver of the company his late father built.
He fired his crew chief, Pete Rondeau, last week in a shakeup designed to jump start his struggling team.
Earnhardt and DEI executives claimed the chemistry just wasn't there, even though the duo had worked together for just 11 races. Rondeau was hired at the end of last season, replacing the combination of Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr.
The Eurys, who are Earnhardt's uncle and cousin, were the only crew Junior had ever worked with before they were sent en masse to work with teammate Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt acknowledged it was difficult to part ways with the Eurys "because my Dad put me with those guys," but said his working relationship with his cousin was too strained to continue.
So Rondeau was put in charge in his first stint as a crew chief. Junior maintained he liked Rondeau, but the two had a communication problem during races.
Then, on the eve of Sunday's race, Rondeau responded with his own set of complaints. He alleged his three-year contract was never signed by team owner Teresa Earnhardt and that the firing was out of the blue despite a clause that he be given six weeks notice if things weren't working out.
He also claimed that communication was an issue with both Earnhardt, and with Waltrip's crew.
"There was probably a little sore spot between the old eight team and us," Rondeau told The (Columbia) State. "Tony Eury Sr. was supposed to be working amongst the two teams. I probably saw him once at Daytona and never saw him again after that.
"When you're a single-car team in a multi-car organization, that's not going to work."
One thing is certain after Sunday night's race: If there weren't problems between the teams before, they most certainly exist now.
Waltrip and Earnhardt were both racing in the Top 10 when Junior rammed into the back of Waltrip's bumper and sent him spinning across the track. Earnhardt's car was damaged, along with three other drivers.
Earnhardt, who received a shocking smattering of boos during driver introductions, was jeered by the fans as he drove his car into the garage for repairs.
Once there, he was greeted by dirty looks from his cousin and former crew. Waltrip was very careful in choosing his words when asked what had happened.
"I don't know what happened, I felt like I was in front of Dale Jr. and he ran into me," Waltrip said.
Eury Sr. -- the man Junior affectionally refers to as "Pops" -- was a lot more blunt.
"I don't know what his problem is with Michael," he said of Earnhardt. "It'll be fixed tomorrow, I guarantee it. He acts like he's friends with him, but every time he gets near him on the track he ends up wrecking him.
"DEI has enough problems. We don't need that."
Eury also said the wreck wasn't an isolated incident: "It's been happening for five years."
Earnhardt maintained the wreck was not intentional and bristled at the criticism from his family members.
"I know some of the guys on Michael's team are probably upset, but don't really know," he said. "If you're not in the race car, you don't know what the hell is going on out there. I can't expect anybody to understand exactly what was going on at that moment at that time."
The only thing that is clear is that Earnhardt is in serious jeopardy of having the worst season of his six-year career. He dropped four spots in the standings to 15th after Sunday's race and has yet to score his first win of the season.
And he only has an interim crew chief right now in Steve Hmiel, the longtime technical director at DEI. Jimmy Elledge, currently the crew chief for Casey Mears and Earnhardt's brother-in-law, is considered the top candidate. But Elledge, who worked on crews for the late Dale Earnhardt, admitted the job won't be easy.
"If you get put in that position, you have to be ready for it," Elledge said. "He's a little bit like his dad he's a strong personality. He can drive. He can get it done. But whoever takes that position just better be good at it, be ready to go for the ride. He's going to go to the top."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press