Sunday, April 19, 2009

Junior's Fate Goes From Bad To Worse; Even Martin Out-Does Him

By Jerry Bonkowski

How is it that Mark Martin can win his first race since 2005, yet Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to be stuck in a tunnel that seems to have no light at the end of it?

That was pretty much the story in Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway: Martin won from the pole, lead the most laps (157, more than half of the race's 312 circuits around the flat one-mile oval) and broke a 97-race winless streak.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, led the second-highest number of laps (63), yet was once again victimized by misfortune: a bad set of tires, followed by being punted into the wall late in the race.

End result for the driver of the No. 88 Chevy – and Martin's teammate: a very disappointing 31st-place finish. Earnhardt has now finished 20th or worse in half of the season's first eight races.

And while Martin jubilantly breaks his winless streak, Earnhardt's streak of frustration now extends to just one win in his last 106 starts.

Oh yes, one more thing: Saturday night's win helps Martin, who earlier this season was as far back as 34th in the standings, jump up from 18th to 13th in the rankings heading into next week's race at Talladega, just nine points behind 12th-ranked and former Roush Racing teammate and prodigy Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt, meanwhile, falls from 16th to 19th and is starting to reach a point where his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup are becoming more and more questionable.

Earnhardt is now a massive 399 points behind teammate and series leader Jeff Gordon. Even guys like David Reutimann (9th), Kasey Kahne (10th), Ryan Newman (17th) and even Juan Pablo Montoya (15th) are ranked ahead of Earnhardt in the standings after the first eight races.

It's getting to the point where a major shake-up of Earnhardt's team, which more and more fans have been calling for as he continues to fade further down in the standings, may be closing in on the horizon, faster than we might think. What may have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the season may now have reached a point where it's inevitable.

Even though he's done a great job under some very trying circumstances, will crew chief Tony Eury Jr., ultimately become the fall guy and be relieved of his duties – even though Dale Jr.'s struggles really haven't been of Eury's doing?

Or, might team owner Rick Hendrick give Eury a few weeks off and try someone else at the helm to see if it might change things?

Or, will Hendrick do what he's done several times in the past when one or more of his teams have struggled: shift several personnel from another team to the team that needs the most help (in this case, Earnhardt's)?

But with four-time Cup champ Gordon in the points lead, three-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson now in second place and Martin knocking on the door of the top-12, where would Hendrick move folks from?

Had this been earlier in the year, when Martin was in danger of falling out of the top-35, a case maybe could have been made to switch crew chief Alan Gustafson with Eury, even if for just a few races, to see if the change might make a difference for both teams.

But now, with the driver Hendrick pursued for nearly two years – to convince him to return to full-time racing for one last try at the championship that has eluded him throughout his Cup career – on the verge of becoming a bonafide Chase contender, Hendrick's hands suddenly seem very tied.

He can let Earnhardt and Eury muster on and hope their horrendous run of bad luck and bad breaks turns around eventually.

But by the time that would come – and some are starting to have doubts that it will come any time soon – it may be far too late to salvage 2009, making two straight disappointing season finishes with an organization that was supposed to revitalize Junior's career and make him a champion.

Junior left Dale Earnhardt Inc., after the 2007 season, convinced that Hendrick Motorsports would give him everything he needed to become a consistent winner and eventual Cup champion.

But the way things have gone in his 44-race tenure with HMS up to now, Junior's best days may not necessarily still be ahead of him.

Rather, how long will it be before many of his diehard fans start thinking that perhaps the best days of his career may have already passed during his time at DEI.

If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: contrary to what many of his fans think, I don’t hate Junior. I really do want to see him succeed. In fact, I'm shaking my head from side to side as I write this, virtually incredulous at how much bad luck Earnhardt and his team have endured this year.

But even I've hopped on the Earnhardt bandwagon, essentially calling for ANYTHING that can help pull him out of the dive that he's currently in.

Sure, much of that misfortune has come from within: Earnhardt's bonehead move in the season-opening Daytona 500 that took out several race leaders, speeding onto or off pit road, and how he's missed his pit stall at least twice this season – not to mention pitting outside of it – for starters.

There's also been several pit crew errors, as well, including dropped lug nuts, and poor pit calls that have turned his car from a finely tuned machine into a vehicle that drove like a tank that can't turn.

Frankly, I'm getting tired of criticizing Earnhardt and his team for its mistakes and shortcomings. I'm actually feeling very sorry for them, because they can't catch a break.

Saturday night was just another example. He leads the second-highest number of laps in the race, looks like he might actually win at a place that he historically has done very well at (and won twice at previously), and yet ends up with another exasperating finish.

I've REALLY tried not to say it up to this point, but I can't ignore it anymore:

With the way Saturday's 50-year-old race winner has bounced back from his early season struggles, I have to wonder if even venerable, old-school Mark Martin, who has gone nearly 30 years without winning a Cup crown, may wind up winning a Cup championship before Junior does – if he ever does.


  1. great article jerry was nice to chat with you during the race and i am so happy mark martin won this race

  2. I am ready to see a change on the pitbox..It may not be the reason, but the team has to start somewhere..This change plus more practice with the crew should and can bring more results as long as Junior realizes he needs something new. Staying with family may not be the answer.

    JIm from Delmont

  3. Why doesn't Eury suggest some changes for the good of the team? If Earnhardt doesn't come around this season, is there any chance he will rethink his life as a driver?

  4. I'm happy my boy Mark won the race (most touching moment was when Roush and the guys congratulated him).
    I think eventually Jr.'s luck will turn around.

  5. Congrads to Mark...

    It seems to me that Jr's popularity is based on one and only one thing ..
    the name Earnhardt.
    He resembles a baseball player that is known as a spurt player, gets hot for a short time, then reverts to his normal self, OK at best.
    Jr just doesn't seem to have what it takes to get to that next plateau, a serious challenger for the cup.
    I hope I am wrong but thats as I see it for now.

  6. I believe you are correct Jerry, as you often are. It's too late to save Jr., and this season. Hendrick should just sit him down and explain that although he is a very popular driver, and that the royalties from souvenir sales have brought in more cash than any of the other drivers in his stable, it just isn't his year.

    That being said, we're going to start having the 88 team run "experimental" items for the "winning" teams. This is a team sport and everyone needs to pitch in to help the organization and teams as a whole. (I believe in the Hendrick race teams, this used to be called the Casey Mears talk.)

    Sorry I was unable to join the chat during the race. Hi everyone, I missed the HotDog talk banter. I'm guessing it was quite a good time with the No.5 leading the way...I may just need to have a yard sale and dump some of this un-needed 88 gear I have.

  7. Great article, as usual... The biggest problem for Junior is that the expectation that is set simply by being the son of Dale Sr. is so high that not even a genetic mutation of the top 50 racers of all time could meet it.

    On another note, what a GREAT CHAT about creating a 'Gimmick Race' to generate some buzz... For those who want to read more, click on my name and check out the RacingIn Blog about creating a NASCAR Dirt Race as a gimmick.

  8. While I agree that Jr. is the main reason for his poor performances, I also think that Tony Eury Jr. needs to shoulder some of the blame. However, it's NOT for the same reasons that Jr. Nation rip him for.

    I think part of the problem with the 88 team is that TE is either afraid or unwilling to get in Jr.'s face and take charge. Maybe it's because he's in over his head and knows it. Jr. talks down to him and his team and that's just not the way that great teams operate. Can you imagine Jimmie Johnson talking down to Chad Knaus? Or Jeff Gordon talking down to Ray Evernham when they were winning all those Cup titles?

    While Jr. publicly defends TE, I think that deep down TE feels that the only reason he has this gig is because Jr. is his cousin and if he rocks the boat or does something to tick Jr. off, then the gig is up and he's out. Which the way the 88 team is running, may be inevitable anyway.

    Ultimately Rick Hendrick is responsible for the 88 team, but it would help him a lot if someone on that team would step up and tell Jr. "you know what dude? Maybe spending the off-week partying it up at your bar is not the way to get us back on track". And if anyone, it should be his crew chief. But can anyone imagine TE doing that? I sure can't, and I'm sure TE thinks the same thing.

  9. jr is not a race car driver. tony e.jr is a good crew chif.[ be great with good driver]

  10. Jr. won 17 races & 2 Busch championships with Tony Eury Sr. yet 2 races with Tony Jr. That tells me what the problem is right there.

  11. Jr. got out front for one reason only, pit strategy. He was a top 15 car at best all night, and in the end, even before he got spun, had drifted back to that area. It wasn't about his luck in this race, Eury made a good call to get some track position, and for those 63 laps, it worked. But once the tires equalized Jr. fell quickly through the pack, and that pit strategy eventually did more harm than good as if he wasn't spun, let's not forget he couldn't have made it to the end on fuel anyway. Regardless, he would have had a poor finish. Jr's said himself he hates the way these new card drive, and his on-track results prove it. If not for the fuel-mileage win last year, he would be winless in those 106 starts. He will go winless this year, given his current on track performance. Whether it be the crew chief or other crew members, something has to change with that team. Jr's cars as prepared at the same Hendrick shop (the 5 and 88 are at one shop, the 24 and 48 are at another) as Mark's cars, and look at Mark's performance this year. He has been struck by more actual bad luck than Jr (2 engines and 1 tire), yet is practically in the chase now and is a contender every week. I'm not necessarily a Jr-Nation hater, but I think it's pretty obvious, that Jr. rode in on the coat tails of his father and in reality, lacks the talent to "get it done". Congrats to Mark, he truly deserved this win, and I look forward to seeing him contending for more wins this season.

  12. JR needs Tony SR as his crew chief. He and Tony JR are like best friends, Tony SR can lay the law down, and JR respects that. The big problem would be Brad Kaz. and his run in the Nationwide deal, that could hurt. Bottom line, Tony SR is the key !!!!

  13. Good article...first off I would say that Jr does have the talent to get it done. I realize he has 1 win in his last 106 starts but a Nascar Victory doesn't fall into your lap, just ask Bobby Labonte. He has only 21 wins since 1991 but still has a Championship. My point is that Jr has 17 wins in a day and age where the equipment and competition is greater now than ever. We could argue for days about how many of those victories came on a super speedway but a win is a win whether it's bristol or daytona. I'm a Jr fan no doubt and I hope that the problem is resolved sooner than later and I don't believe it's too late for 2009 either.

  14. I totally agree with something I heard on the radio earlier this year - Jr is the next Kyle Petty, great name, won a few races early on, but doesn't have what it takes to be a long term contender.

  15. jr. can not drive the new car

  16. jr. has one big win the 500 other than that it has been all about the name.the best of jr. has came and went!!!!

  17. There are lots of middle-of-the-pack drivers in Cup. Junior is one of them. No reason to hate him but no reason to be surprised either. He is who he is.

  18. If you don't make a change--Junior will go no where. I am a big fan--but honestly speaking--I am leaning more and more towards some other drivers---

    Junior needs to get off his own band-wagon, allow some other people to assess him as a person, a driver, etc and make some corrections. He doesn't want to work to change--he wants to show up, drive a car and win a race. Not going to happen with this car and he does not have what his dad had. He is the fourth best driver for Hendrick.

  19. hendrick should put tony sr. on the box

  20. I am a fan of Jr. but I think Rick sure get rid of everyone but Jr. and start over new guy on the box and a whole new crew. The race a couple of week ago when they left off a lug nut and Jr. came back in and they was setting on the wall not put up his sign or letting him know where to stop. It just seem that the crew has lost respect for Jr. and that not good. Rick need to make Jr. learn how to talk to his crew and not talk down to them. I think Jr. is a good driver not a great driver but much better than we have seen for a long time. Rick please do something.

  21. As I recall, Ironhead had some down years too, but came back. Richard in N.C.

  22. I believe that Jr. has the talent (2 Bush Championships, Daytona 500 win and 17 Cup wins) to win championships. He needs someone as a crew chief that won't take any crap from him, needs to develop a better work and workout ethic and stop being a celebrity and concentrate on being a Cup driver. Since he doesn't like the way the new car drives, and NA$CAR isn't going to change it, he should be at a track 5 days per week driving the COT. If he spent 20 extra hours per week in the car driving it, he could actually learn the nuances of the COT and possibly change his "luck".

  23. Great article Jerry, but what's with the title? "Even (Mark) Martin outdoes him?" Hell, why WOULDN'T Mark Martin outdo Jr.? Martin has been driving exceptionally well and if not for 2 blown engines and 1 blown tire, he would be top-10 and probably top-5, if not leading in the points. At 50 years of age, Martin has experience at his side, but not only that, he has a hunger and desire that Jr. can only wish he possessed.

    There's a reason why Martin had so many drivers and even a rival owner congratulate him on Saturday. It's called R-E-S-P-E-C-T, something that, once again, Jr. can only wish he had from other drivers and owners.

  24. I think this season will prove that Jr. is just an average driver. He has unfortunate expectations due to his name. It's tough to be the son, younger brother, etc. of a great driver/player.

    I don't think a new crew chief will help (and why would you waste a great cc on him). You have a driver who doesn't always take blame when it's due (unless someone gets ahold of him - i.e., the Brian Vickers incident) and can't communicate well with his crew chief on problems with the car (this car is crap is not a useful comment)

    Personally, I think Hendrick should assume the #88 car is their #4 team and be greatful for all the $$ coming in from merchandise sales and not worry about fixing them.

  25. Im tired of hearing about Junior especially when Mark Martin takes a win, deserved or not, he beat everyone on the track and acted like a true pro .
    To end all the discussion on JR lets get it out there once and for all Jr Is a 15 to 20 place driver Hes not ever going to overwhelm anyone and once everyone realizes that we all can be happy Especially him because he knows that and he knows the fans are Overwhelming to him!To much for one to handle he doesnt want to be your god!!!!

  26. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Very few team actually get there. Would Jimmy be as good with out Chad? Who is more important? I think there are very few combinations that actually hit the nail on the head. Some drivers can adapt to different Crew chiefs, generally when that combo is broken up the magic is over and they never find it again. Obviously the parts hear are not working. Who leaves Jr or Jr. May DJ should swap rides with someone at RCR(chevy) or buy back DEI for pennies on the dollar.

  27. "I totally agree with something I heard on the radio earlier this year - Jr is the next Kyle Petty, great name, won a few races early on, but doesn't have what it takes to be a long term contender."

    Great comparison, except that Jr. has better equipment than Kyle Petty ever had. Which speaks volumes about Jr.'s level of talent, or lack thereof.

  28. Just wanted to say that I'm glad to see you are doing well. I just found your site from a link on Black Flagged. I missed reading you on Yahoo and am happy to subscribe to your feed here.

  29. I know Jr isn't perfect, but he does have talent. I'm sick of hearing that he doesn't. He has two Nationwide championships, 18 cup wins, 22 Nationwide wins.

    I'm just not sure Eury Jr is right for him. Why did Eury Sr stop being Jrs crew chief? I mean most of Jrs victories come with Eury Sr. Eury Sr is still a crew chief - for Jr Motorports no less. Look at the stats. Since he lost Eury Sr he's been lucky to get 1 win a year. The last year he was with Eury Sr he got about 5 point race wins, and was rarely out of the top 10. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see Eury Jr is not working.

    I think Eury Jr's capabilities as a crew chief are more than suspect. I admit Jr has made a lot of mistakes, but they aren't meshing. If you want a perfect example, get the DVD for the 2008 Daytona 500 and listen to the 88 radio chatter. It was embarrassing. In one spot during a caution, Eury didn't know what to do and was asking Jr, and Jr was obviously frustrated and was going "why you asking me, your the crew chief".

  30. And yeah, I should add, congrats to Mark Martin. He rocks. He is competitive every week. He is ruling at qualifying this year. He has had some bad luck, but he is sure on his game. Unlike a _lot_ of drivers. He just hasn't translated that into a lot of wins for various reasons.

  31. Without the Earhardt name JR would have been fired a long time ago. He's just not that great, he's good

  32. "I know Jr isn't perfect, but he does have talent. I'm sick of hearing that he doesn't. He has two Nationwide championships, 18 cup wins, 22 Nationwide wins."

    Big deal. Seriously. BIG DEAL. Maybe you're a Jr. fan. Maybe not. But the truth of the matter is that your statement has become the rallying cry for Jr.'s fans. It's interesting how they have suddenly moved away from the "Jr. is a great driver" garbage they used to constantly spew and have now embraced "Jr. has talent" as the official Jr. Nation line.

    You know what? NOBODY, except Jr. fans, cares about what he accomplished in the past. He has done NOTHING for about three years running. The driver he replaced at Hendrick has only 7 less victories than he does with half the number of years behind the wheel. Plus he's younger and has greater upside than Jr. has or ever will have.

    Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 4-time champion who can still win, 3-time champion in the prime of his career, 50-year old 4-time runner-up who can still win, 34-year old never-was who moves a lot of merchandise and has a famous last name.

    Now I think you hit something with the whole "Tony Eury Jr.'s capabilities as a crew chief are more than suspect" notion. The guy (talking about Eury Jr.) looks clueless out there and it's an indictment of his (and Jr.'s) abilities in that they usually start a race strong and then as soon as they come in for the first pit stop, they ruin what had been a good running car with head-scratching adjustments and then spend the rest of the race playing catch-up. Along with the little things, like the embarrassing Daytona 500 exchange and Eury Jr. not counting Jr. down to his pit stall (which certainly doesn't help when there's a mass of cars on pit road), this team just is not clicking. That WHOLE TEAM needs a shakeup to salvage whatever is left of Jr.'s future as a driver.

    But seriously, enough of basking in Jr.'s past accomplishments. If any other driver's fanbase mentioned that their favorite was a 2-time Nationwide Winner they would get nothing but derision and a "well, what has your guy done on the premier level?". And his 18 wins in 11 years is not exactly a championship-caliber winning-percentage either.

  33. Tony Eury Jr. on "NASCAR Now":

    "We have a good chance at Talladega"

    Based on what? Certainly not on your performances this year or last year for that matter.

    Denial. It's just not just a river in Egypt.

  34. There was a light in that tunnel. At Phoenix, the damned thing was attached to a freakin' train.

  35. Most of 2008, the 24 team would start with an ok car and after the first pit stop find it was a pile of garbage. Junior and Junior will find the handle on the COT. Dale, Jr. has talent and Tony, Jr. is a good Crew Chief. I am proud to be a fan of the 88 team.

  36. "Most of 2008, the 24 team would start with an ok car and after the first pit stop find it was a pile of garbage."

    Good point. But there was never any doubt that Gordon would make the Chase. Can anyone say the same thing about the 88 team?

    "Junior and Junior will find the handle on the COT."

    Since they haven't demonstrated anything to even remotely back that up, I'm not sure where this confidence comes from. Hope springs eternal I suppose.


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