ESPN's David Newton reported Thursday morning that Tony Eury Jr. has been fired as crew chief of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The move comes after Earnhardt's 40th-place finish Monday in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600.
Team manager Brian Whitesell will serve as crew chief for this weekend's race at Dover, with Lance McGrew taking over the following weekend at Pocono on an interim basis.
Whitesell, a longtime Hendrick employee, was an interim crew chief for Jeff Gordon in 1999, winning two of his seven races atop the pit box. Once McGrew takes over, Whitesell and lead chassis engineer Rex Stump will offer full-time support, with team engineer Tom Stewart assisting with race strategy.
Hendrick Motorsports has no shortage of smart and capable racing minds -- Ray Evernham, Chad Knaus and Darian Grubb immediately come to mind -- and both Whitesell and McGrew have proven themselves in the past. Whitesell is a Sprint Cup race-winning crew chief, while McGrew has worked with Earnhardt before in the Nationwide Series.
On paper, this arrangement looks solid. The fans, no doubt, will simply be happy a move was made. Junior Nation wanted owner Rick Hendrick to get rid of Eury for a while now, and even though Hendrick was reluctant at first, it became clear over the past few races that something needed to be done.
With his third straight finish of 27th or worse, Earnhardt sits 19th in points after Charlotte, 203 points behind 12th-place Mark Martin. While all three Hendrick Motorsports teammates -- Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- have won races this season, Junior has just one Top-5 finish (Talladega) and two Top-10s.
It was clear almost immediately that a change needed to be made. Earnhardt's on-track mistakes -- missing his pit stall, causing the Big One at Daytona -- aside, it was clear something was missing between driver and crew. The car was never set up right, and on more than one occasion, Earnhardt would ask for an adjustment that never came.
At Richmond earlier this month, Earnhardt asked for a wedge adjustment -- only to have his crew adjust the track bar. Junior finish 27th at one of his historically better tracks.
With Eury Jr. as his crew chief, Earnhardt won just two races -- one on fuel mileage and one on tire strategy. Fifteen of Junior's 18 Sprint Cup victories came with Tony Eury Sr. calling the shots. Eury Sr. currently serves as Brad Keselowski's crew chief in the Nationwide Series; Keselowski has two career wins in that series and finished third in the championship standings last season.
Best-case scenario would've put Eury Sr. back on the pit box, but the addition of Whitesell and McGrew also make sense. Whitesell is smart, and McGrew -- with his history with Earnhardt -- should take care of the ever-present chemistry question. Chemistry between driver and crew chief can be paramount; just ask Carl Edwards and Bob Osbourne or Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
Junior Nation should face the fact: Earnhardt will not make the Chase this year, and even with this move, it's unlikely he'll win any races. But if I'm Hendrick, I'm probably looking toward next season. If there's marked improvement in the No. 88 camp, I can see McGrew being named full-time crew chief in the offseason. This move wasn't so much to help Junior make the Chase this year; it was more to get things in order for another try in 2010.
Will it work? That remains to be seen, but things can't be much worse for NASCAR's most popular driver than they already are.