Friday May 29th, 2009

So, the inevitable has happened; Tony Eury Jr. has been replaced as the crew chief for his cousin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. After Little E's 40th-place finish at Charlotte last Monday, there was really no way for team owner Rick Hendrick to get around the fact that something had to change with the No. 88 team. The car has finished 20th or worse in five of the past six races, and in seven of 12 overall. Junior now ranks 19th in points and is all but assured of missing the Chase.

This is a stunning reversal for Earnhardt, who moved to Hendrick last year as the most ballyhooed free agent in the history of the sport. He had won two Busch-series championships and 17 races driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and the expectation was that with the kind of equipment available to him at Hendrick Motorsports, he was in the best position of his career to contend for a championship.

That now seems like a long time ago. Junior is suffering on two different levels here -- the man he replaced at HMS, Kyle Busch, is one of the top drivers in the series; and Mark Martin, the man who replaced underperforming HMS teammate Casey Mears in the No. 5 car, has won two races. The comparisons are killing him.

Will the switch help? New crew chief Lance McGrew is a respected figure in the Cup garage, having competed and won with some of the top drivers in the game. But he's in a tough spot now, responsible for the fortunes of the most popular man in NASCAR. He's going to be working under a microscope, a situation with which he has already expressed some discomfort.

Some people in the sport, however, are hinting that the problem may not be on top of the pit box."If Junior doesn't run well, then [Lance McGrew's] going to be the problem," says Kyle Busch. "It's never Junior. It's always the crew chief."

Left unsaid by most, of course, is that the problem might be Junior. That seems to be the conclusion that nobody -- at least, nobody this side of Busch -- wants to come to right now.

18: Career Cup victories for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

1: Number of victories for Junior without his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., as either his crew chief or his car chief

14: Number of races for Junior with Steve Hmiel as his crew chief in 2005

Just great. So last week for the magazine, I wrote a column about Tony Stewart's new, more sedate life as a team owner. I finished the piece on Sunday night, before Monday's delayed Coca-Cola 600. Stewart, of course, promptly made a scene during one of the rain stoppages. He also introduced NASCAR fans to the term "Billy Bad Butt."

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