Thursday May 28th, 2009

In the end, Rick Hendrick was left with only one option: He had to fire Tony Eury Jr. on Thursday to try to salvage not only Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season, but also his career.

This has been building for months and months, not weeks. Sure, Earnhardt has been the biggest disappointment of the 2009 Sprint Cup season -- after his 40th place finish last weekend in Charlotte, he fell to 19th in the standings -- but the performance of the Earnhardt-Eury duo has been underwhelming for over two years now. Consider: In his last 110 starts, Little E, voted the most popular driver in the sport six years running now, has a grand total of one victory. Over this same stretch, Matt Kenseth, who entered the Cup series the same time as Earnhardt but generates nowhere near the same buzz , has seven wins.

Earnhardt's struggles have been even more magnified this season because of the successes of his three teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon has one win this year and leads the points; Jimmie Johnson has one victory and is fourth in the standings; and Mark Martin has two wins and is in 12th. In other words, everyone at Hendrick is reaching Victory Lane and will make the Chase -- everyone, that is, except Earnhardt.

So why haven't Earnhardt and Eury, who are cousins and have been together for Junior's entire Cup career save for one season, been able to get the job done? For starters, there's always been a certain lack of professionalism between the two. They often bicker like brothers in the bluest of language; they play the blame game with the best of them when the car isn't running well; and when they're frustrated they've even given each other the silent treatment in the past, such as a few years ago in the season-finale at Homestead, when the two didn't utter a word to each other all weekend. This kind of behavior simply doesn't fly at Hendrick Motorsports, the most buttoned-up organization in NASCAR.

Earnhardt also has seemed distracted this season, making uncharacteristic, sophomoric mistakes. A sampling: By his own admission, he triggered the Big One at Daytona; he's been busted for speeding on pit road; he's missed his pit stall several times; and he's missed the entrance to pit road more than once. Perhaps if Junior had a crew chief who would really light into him when he committed a blunder -- hold him accountable for his mistakes -- then some of these problems would disappear. Just a guess.

Where do Eury and Earnhardt go from here? Eury will stay at Hendrick and work in research and development. Brian Whitesell, who is the team manager, will take over for Eury this weekend in Dover. After that, Lance McGrew, who used to be the crew chief for Brian Vickers when Vickers was at Hendrick, will take the seat atop Earnhardt's pit box on an interim basis. But if McGrew produces results, I'm sure he can have the job full-time if he wants it.

This season isn't entirely lost yet for Earnhardt, but it's certainly on the brink. There are 14 races left before the start of the Chase, which means Junior still has time to climb back up the standings. But for the most followed, most written about driver in NASCAR, the time to produce is now.

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