Bruce Martin
Monday March 23rd, 2009

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- When NASCAR's most popular driver joined Hendrick Motorsports, everyone thought Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was finally with a team that would take him to his first Cup championship.

But five races into the 2009 season and after a disappointing Bristol, that championship looks like a pipe dream.

The interesting thing about the situation is that rather than putting the heat on the driver, fans and the media are turning up the burner on crew chief Tony Eury, Jr.

The crew chief is also Earnhardt's cousin, and has been a key player in his racing career since the beginning. The problem is, the two are so close they are almost like an old married couple -- can't live with him; can't live without him.

Therein lies the dilemma that faces Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 team. It's virtually impossible to replace Eury with another crew chief because the results may actually be worse than the disappointing season the two are mired in.

"Whether we are the perfect combination or not, that doesn't mean anything to me," Earnhardt said at Bristol. "I just like racing with him. That is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I like working with him. Whether I get to do that or not, I don't know."

Earnhardt's former team at DEI and his current team at Hendrick have both operated with that philosophy and so far it's a matter of unrealized expectations. But racing for Hendrick -- a team that demands success -- Earnhardt's side of the operation will have to produce some results on the track, not just at the souvenir rigs.

Earnhardt is one of the few drivers in this sport who truly speaks from his heart. Ask him a question and he'll tell you what he really feels -- not what he thinks his public relations representative or his sponsor wants him to say.

Last Friday at Bristol was one of those days when Earnhardt opened up with his true feelings regarding the criticism that has been directed at his crew chief and cousin.

"We haven't run well and it's obvious, so it's OK for people to point that out because it's a fact," Earnhardt said. "We haven't run like we've wanted to. [But] the guy I feel bad for is Tony Jr. because he gets criticized so badly. Everybody in this room knows how smart of a guy he is; truly knows how he is a solid crew chief. He just wants to do this for a living, 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."

The critics believe it's the combination of Earnhardt and Eury that doesn't work, but in the DEI days, the two were split one season and that didn't produce the desired results, either.

That goes back to the "Old Married Couple" theory.

"There are rifts between every driver and every crew chief, and they work it out or they don't," Earnhardt said. "I think me and Tony, Jr. do a pretty good job of working it out. It is a tough deal because we have a lot of sponsors and you have a lot of people, a lot of fans. You are in a big sport and each wants to go out there and make it happen."

When asked about the bond between Earnhardt and Eury, Junior's teammate, Jeff Gordon, agreed that it's unique.

"I have never seen two people get after one another and argue more and be able to hug and make up at the end of the day more than those two," Gordon said. "To me, it would be very, very tough to be Dale, Jr's crew chief. I think Tony Eury, Jr. does a great job."

But could a change take place one day?

"I don't know if I am really qualified to be answering that question," Gordon said. "But I do know from my involvement at Hendrick Motorsports over the years, you see certain drivers and you know what they need for a crew chief. I think it was all unanimous and still to this day it is unanimous that Tony Eury, Jr. is the guy for Junior and possibly the only guy for Junior."

While the term "Bracket Busters" is used for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, NASCAR has its own bracket buster after the fifth race of the season with The Racer's Group.

What made Sunday's race so important to many teams is the top-35 rule. The teams that were in the top 35 of the 2008 owner points were guaranteed starting positions for the first five races of the season. But after the fifth race, it switches to the current standings.

Kevin Buckler and The Racer's Group (TRG) is 35th in owner points, which means driver David Gilliland is assured a starting position next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

Missing the cut are Team Red Bull and driver Scott Speed; Chip Ganassi and driver Aric Almirola; and Max Jones and driver Paul Menard.

Those teams will be put in the "Go or Go Home" category, which means they will have to race their way into the starting lineup based on qualification speeds to fill out the final seven places.

TRG's efforts have impressed some of the most accomplished drivers in Cup racing.

"Those guys really are racers and that acronym really means something," said three-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "They have always been competitive and dominant in whatever division they race in. I think today's world has hurt some teams and has forced some mergers, but at the same time, it has allowed other teams an opportunity to come in to our sport. It is nice to see some good things come out of the tough economy and the tough market we have right now."

Gilliland's 36th-place finish at Bristol assured team owner Buckler that TRG was locked into the top 35 in owner points.

"It was pretty exciting to be running as competitively as we were early in the race," Buckler said. "From the qualifying session clear up to the first 60 laps we were really running well. We had a couple of issues which started on lap 125 with the pit stop. We then started to drop like a rock as the cars handling went away. Then you just have to cruise around and finish in the top 35 in owner points, which has been our original goal, and we got it."

First, Jeff Burton was a NASCAR star. But after a March 18 appearance on the ABC daytime drama "General Hospital," is he ready to be a TV star, too?

In his scene, Burton sits in a bar in the fictitious city of Port Charles when another patron starts talking about racing. The character doesn't realize it's Jeff Burton, and when the driver tries to offer advice, he's shot down with a quick: "Obviously you don't know a damn thing about racing."

According to Burton, the line is already resonating. "I've been told that a lot of times in my life, believe it or not," he said. "Actually, I got a text last night that said `You don't know a damn thing about racing.' I said, `I know that.'"

Clint Bowyer, one of Burton's teammates at Richard Childress Racing, offered his thoughts on Burton's acting ability.

"My mom saw it and she said that he did pretty good," Bowyer said. "That's pretty cool. I didn't know he had Hollywood in him. He's a man of many talents isn't he?"

But in real life has anyone in a bar told Bowyer he doesn't know a damn thing about racing?

"Usually I get `you look a lot like Clint Bowyer,'" he said. "Well there's a good reason for that. And then you tell them you are and then they don't believe you. `No, you just look like him, you're really not him.'

"It's funny."

Of course, leave it to another RCR driver, Kevin Harvick, to kill Burton's Emmy buzz before it even started.

"I don't watch stupid [crap] like that," Harvick said.


There was a lot of hype surrounding the Acura ARX heading into the 12 Hours of Sebring, but the winning car was a diesel-powered Audi prototype R15, a new car that won its debut race.

The winning team completed 383 laps and averaged 117.986 mile per hour around the 3.7-mile, 17-turn airport road course. The previous records were 370 laps and 115.85 mph in 1986.

Two-time IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon won the pole in the Acura ARX, which he co-drove with 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud, but, after the car developed a vibration, they took it out of the race after 246 laps -- good for an 18th-place finish.

"I have said from the outset that this car seems to get quicker and quicker the longer it runs," Dixon said. "We have always known that this weekend would be a huge challenge for a brand new car, but it has responded to everything we have thrown at it so far. It is a very physical car to drive and around here the debris and the bumps are notorious."

The first sign of a problem appeared at the halfway point when de Ferran was at the wheel. The rear of the skid plate came loose and the officials called the car into the pits. The team lost two laps while they investigated the problem. They rejoined with de Ferran at the wheel. Soon thereafter, Pagenaud reported handling problems -- later diagnosed as terminal suspension failure and a fuel leak. When the car headed off into the paddock on lap 251 it was running in a strong fourth place.

"We tried to fix the car in the paddock but the damage was too pronounced for us to continue to race," de Ferran said. "It is with great reluctance that we have decided to retire the car."

Although ALMS is a technical exercise, the cars are among the coolest that race in the United States. Sebring is where the Sports Car Geeks convene to see the latest innovations in the sport, and this year's race lived up to the hype, even if the ARX didn't quite.

Just outside of Birmingham, Ala,, is the community of Leeds, which is the home of former NBA star Charles Barkley. It may soon be home to an IndyCar Series race after 10,300 fans turned out to watch the IndyCar Open Test session Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.

"I think it would be good," said IndyCar driver Marco Andretti. "Look at the amount of fans we have here just for a test. As far as driving, I enjoy the place. There's a lot of fast corners. It's pretty unique. I think the closest would be Sonoma or Watkins Glen."

Andretti's teammate, Danica Patrick, said some safety changes would need to be made before it could host the high-speed IndyCars, but expressed optimism that the series will be back in 2010 for a race.

"I think the first concern that always comes up when you're looking at a track for a race event is safety," Patrick said. "The fans are obviously coming out, so I don't doubt that the promoters could bring a bunch out for the race."

Reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon had the fastest lap of the day at 1 minute, 10.5005 seconds, 117.446 mph, on the 15-turn, 2.38-mile circuit. Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing rookie Robert Doornbos was second with a lap of 1:10.6341 while Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan was third (1:10.66.21).

It was a solid finish for Doornbos, who has adapted quickly to IndyCar. Previously, the driver from The Netherlands competed in Formula One and the now defunct Champ Car Series. It was his first time driving the IndyCar on a road course.

"I was very happy to drive on a circuit that I am familiar with, where I can use my experience in setting the car up to my liking and getting to know the team better, because it's a whole new adventure for me," Doornbos said. "I think it's very important to make a good first impression, because the team gave me this chance. They know what I can do. They know that I can win races, and I just need to prove it."

"I'm not out there to be No. 1 in souvenir sales because we all know who No. 1 is and forever will be. I think there is probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulder's who doesn't seem to win very often. I'd rather be No. 1 on the race track." -- Kyle Busch after winning Sunday's Food City 500, taking a swipe at NASCAR's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"The second to last stop when we went from second to third, I told the ladies to man up and get the job done on that last pit stop, which they did. I'm proud of them for doing that. When the time mattered most, they got the job done." -- Kyle Busch referring to his pit crew in Sunday's race.

"You have to have tough skin in this business or you need to be doing something else. You have to take constructive criticism and work hard at it. Today they stepped up to the plate and made it happen." -- Steve Addington, Kyle Busch's crew chief and Joe Gibbs Racing.

A trip to Martinsville Speedway in the springtime means the Dogwood Trees are blooming and warmer weather has arrived. It also means another round of short-track racing, where rubbing isn't only tolerated, it's encouraged. It's also a two-hour drive from the house, which makes it a "stay at home race." The Marriott Points can wait until the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- the IndyCar Series opener -- in two weeks.

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