Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Does Fun Trump Having It All?

At the top level of NASCAR, there are so many factors to consider every week. There are sponsors to please, fans to appease, and an owner to answer to. Your job is to try to win races and ultimately the championship. And that’s not just at the top. Don’t think for a second that that is any less Robby Gordon’s goal than it is Jeff Gordon’s, because no matter how lacking the equipment might be, racers race to win, to get the best finish within their power, to bring home the highest points position they can claw their way into.

Racing should never stop being fun, and as Ken Schrader said, when it stops being fun, it’s time to retire. But that doesn’t mean that fun can be the top priority anymore.

I always liked that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the person he is. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not and he’s always had fun, because he surrounds himself with people he has fun with. The problem is, it seems to be more about the fun than the drive to win.

It might be fun, but at this level it’s not a game.

As the ground swells to rocking with the call for a new crew chief for Earnhardt Jr., the driver continues to defend his choice of Tony Eury Jr., even taking the lion’s share of the blame for the No. 88’s poor showing onto his own shoulders. That’s admirable, because Eury Jr. is family and he and Earnhardt Jr. grew up together. It’s also not what Rick Hendrick is paying for.

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Amid the deluge of criticism of Eury, Earnhardt has stood firmly pat. He has said that he doesn’t worry about whether he and Eury are “the perfect combination or not, that doesn’t mean anything to me. I just like racing with him.” In other words, to Earnhardt, it’s more about having fun than winning. And it all comes back to the fact that at this level, that is simply not how it works. There is simply too much at stake.

I feel badly for both of the Juniors. Is Eury really the problem, the reason for the lack of success? Well, he is and he isn’t. He is in that he doesn’t command Earnhardt’s respect – he allows his cousin to walk over him at times, and when communication breaks down as a result, performance suffers. It’s hard to tell if Eury can’t keep up with the car on a changing track or simply can’t keep up with his cousin.

On the other hand, it’s not entirely in Eury’s lap. Earnhardt is under tremendous pressure from all sides, probably including his own, truth be told. He’s being asked to live up to something he can’t. Junior is a good driver, better than many. But he’s not a great driver. It’s unfair to compare him to Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or especially his late father, because he isn’t that kind of driver. His fans want him to be and so do his sponsors. But wanting does not make it so. The bottom line is, while Junior is a legitimate top-12 driver, he’s not championship caliber.

I’m not saying he has to be championship caliber, and just because he isn’t right now doesn’t mean he couldn’t be if paired in a more productive crew chief relationship. That kind of thing is hard to speculate on, but there are reasons to back it up – mainly Junior’s own record with Tony Eury Sr., who he has all but two of his points wins with. It’s not just that “Pops” was a good crew chief, it was that there was a whole different level of respect there. In those days, there were flashes of a better, more disciplined driver in Earnhardt, as well as of a brilliant mechanic in his car chief Eury Jr.

I have no doubt that Eury Jr. has the ability to be a top wrench, because, simply put, Rick Hendrick doesn’t hire hacks. Chad Knaus, perhaps the most brilliant crew chief in Sprint Cup today and a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has had nothing but praise for Eury’s skill.

So, they both show promise, and frankly, they do show more of it apart than together. But they have fun together, and that’s what it seems to boil down to for Earnhardt Jr. If that’s all he is looking for, then perhaps the highly driven HMS isn’t as good a fit for him as it first appeared. Heck, perhaps the Cup series isn’t. Because while racers should love racing, they should also strive to be at the top of the mountain – even if their longtime friend can’t make it and has to stop shy of the summit. Maybe that friend could even make the summit on his own.

But to me, this is make or break time. For Earnhardt, time grows shorter and shorter to make a championship bid. If he is willing to give that up, then perhaps Rick Hendrick made the wrong call. He’s got three drivers in his stable right now who are all desperate to win the title this year, and all willing to do whatever it takes to get there. And he’s got one driver who would rather have fun, when push really comes to shove.

To be a top team, you need every person in that shop focused on the goal that is to be the best of them all. They can have fun doing it, but when fun gets in the way of the goal, the whole team suffers in the end. That’s a concept that has never seemed to fit in at HMS – even the underperforming Casey Mears has that singular goal.

It reminds me of that game we played as kids, with the obnoxious song “One of these things is not like the others.” In this case, one of them is not like the others, nor does he fit the mold of his organization or of most of his sport. I’ve always admired Dale Earnhardt Jr. for not fitting the mold. But this mold is one he can’t afford to avoid. If the desire isn’t there, that’s not the end of the world. But maybe if that’s truly the case, the two Juniors are better suited for a different world, one where the stakes aren’t quite so high. They would have more fun, and if that is what they really want, it would be, in the end, a good thing.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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