Tom Bowles
Thursday May 28th, 2009

Back in the summer of 2007, reporters asked Rick Hendrick what the expectations would be when he combined NASCAR's most popular driver and the sport's most successful team of the decade.

"From the professional side, I feel the pressure," he said. "When you have multi-car teams, you try to get -- my job is to get the best talent out there. I'm committed to do everything I can to make the entire relationship the best it can be."

"I want to protect the brand. I want to protect Junior's image and who he is, but I want to give him the best stuff."

That quote speaks volumes about the decision to finally break up NASCAR's famous family pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. For nearly a year, criticism has slowly built as observers noted the duo's failure to communicate. While breaking up is hard to do, the difficulties of 2009 made it impossible for this driver/crew chief relationship to continue. For better or worse, more eyes are on Junior than anyone else in the sport, and it had gotten to the point where the unrelenting defense of his crew chief was a constant distraction. Junior couldn't run from the questions, and so far this season a man who should be in the best professional position of his life is instead saddled with a 20-ton anvil on his back.

"I'll take the fall," he said back in March for the duo's continued struggles. "I would rather be crucified than him. Because every time I read in the paper that people are on his case, I feel like I am sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed. I feel bad for him because he just wants to work and have fun."

Of course, during the race it's been a different story, with the well-publicized spats between the two on the radio leading to far more frustration than fun. Certainly, people will look towards Junior's 40th-place finish at Charlotte as the breaking point, but the real tipping point was likely the three-week stretch of Phoenix, Talladega, and Richmond before that. Those tracks account for 10 of Earnhardt's 18 Cup victories, but he stumbled through them with an average finish of 20th, far from the inspiring performances needed to claw back into Chase contention in this, his second season with HMS.

Perhaps more importantly, as Earnhardt suffered, so too did the "brand" long associated with the millions of dollars in souvenir sales and name recognition. For years, Junior has been NASCAR's version of LeBron James, Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant -- the crossover star capable of turning on millions to the excitement surrounding his sport. But with just one win in 48 starts with Hendrick, that power is nearly dried up. It's hard to market a guy who sits 19th in points -- 203 outside of Chase contention -- who's led fewer than 100 laps all year. The most notable news items for Earnhardt this season have been missing his pit box not once, not twice, but multiple times; being one-half of the duo that triggered Daytona's biggest wreck; and failing to live up to his father's famous name. It's not exactly the type of excitement that'll have Leno and Letterman calling, is it?

Through it all, much of the focus has been on Eury, Earnhardt's cantankerous cousin who was the only crew chief at Hendrick without an engineering degree. While the effort was there, Eury seemed lost in a world of high-tech support and information he never came close to seeing in his years at DEI. It was almost as if he was so in awe of being handed the best cars on the planet, he never quite figured out what to do with them. That led to dozens of races in the past 18 months in which the No. 88 would begin with the best car on the track, only to see the wrong adjustments drag it down out of contention.

All of that left Hendrick with no choice but to make the drastic move. Now, with Eury out of the picture, 2009 is a rebuilding year with the Chase all but thrown out the window. While replacement Lance McGrew is a capable crew chief in his own right -- he's won races in all three of NASCAR's top series -- the move is likely temporary while Hendrick searches for a permanent answer in '10. Star power breeds star power, and Hendrick will likely be looking for a man on the pit box who's got the established track record to match up with the sport's most recognizable star. Ray Evernham has been rumored, but the mastermind behind Jeff Gordon hasn't been up on the pit box in nearly a decade. A more likely option would be pairing Earnhardt with a guy like Greg Zipadelli, a "put up or shut up" kind of guy who led Tony Stewart to a pair of championships and Brickyard 400 wins with Joe Gibbs.

Most important of all, it's time to find out how much of the blame for this season falls on the driver and not the team. Junior's defense of Eury led to a statement a few months back in which Junior claimed he'd be happy simply racing for fun, no matter what the final results are each week. That's a clear departure from the modus operandi at Hendrick, where championships are the rule and not the exception.

"I know that he'll commit whatever it takes for us to be successful," Junior said when he signed with his car owner in '07. "I think that I've got enough talent ... I think personally I will cherish a championship on my mantle when it's all said and done. I really do want it."

Hendrick just showed he's still capable of making that commitment. Now it's time to see if Earnhardt still wants to follow through on his.

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