With each weekend that passes without Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane, the pressure and the speculation mounts. NASCAR obviously wants the sport's most popular driver winning races, but aside from a fuel-mileage win at Michigan last June, that's become a rarity -- to the tune of two wins in the last 103 races.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Junior's teammate Jimmie Johnson have been collecting checkered flags like they were baseball cards.
With the pressure and scrutiny surrounding Earnhardt -- NASCAR's most popular driver alligned with the sport's most successful team in Hendrick Motorsports -- the blame has to fall somewhere. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin, has become the prime target, leading to speculation as to whether such criticism is justified.
I think it is, and the numbers back me up. Consider:
In 209 career Sprint Cup races with someone other than Eury Jr. on the pit box, Earnhardt has visited Victory Lane 16 times. In the 123 races with Eury Jr. calling the shots, Earnhardt has won just twice.
What's worse ... countless times Earnhardt has had a car capable of dominating and winning races, only to have in-race adjustments and strategies take the No. 88 out of contention. Earnhardt led the most laps in several races last season, only to wind up not winning those races. Some races, like Eury's pit gaffe at Watkins Glen, are indicative of Eury's shortcoming: the man simply cannot function during a race.
I'm not suggesting Eury Jr. be fired; he served as Earnhardt's car chief when Tony Eury Sr. was crew chief for the No. 8 at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Fifteen of Earnhardt's Cup wins came with that combination in place, and it's no coincidence Junior hasn't had much success behind the wheel since Eury Sr. stepped off the pit box.
(Eury Sr. is still a crew chief, though, serving in that capacity for Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series. Keselowski has two career wins and finished third in the points last season in the No. 88 for JR Motorsports.)
If I'm Rick Hendrick (and alas, I'm not), I'd strongly consider finding another crew chief for Earnhardt and put Eury Jr. back in his comfort zone by making him the car chief. Eury Jr. has repeatedly shown he knows how to set up a car in the shop; it's during the race where he stumbles, and Earnhardt will never have the success his fans crave and the media demands as long as Eury Jr. is his crew chief.
To Earnhardt's credit, he's taken full responsibility for his slow start (19th in points, one top-10 on the season). Daytona in particular was Junior's fault (on a number of levels), and while it's admirable that he's falling on the sword for his cousin, Eury Jr. deserves just as much blame, if not more.
Hendrick and Jeff Gordon have also spoken out in favor of Eury Jr., saying there are no plans to make a change; Gordon even said no one else would be equipped to deal with everything that comes with being crew chief for the sport's most popular driver. But how genuine is that sentiment, and how much of that is company-speak? Could it be the dreaded vote of confidence coaches in other sports always get before they're axed?
I appreciate Junior's loyalty to his cousin, but at some point, someone around him with some pull has to realize Eury Jr. is holding him back. Earnhardt, 34, isn't getting any younger, and that window is closing fast. I don't know who to put on the box instead (I heard rumors of Chad Knaus coming over from the No. 48, but Hendrick just isn't going to mess with a magical combination like that), but I do know Eury Jr. isn't cutting it.
Now if Earnhardt could just see it.