- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a new crew chief starting with this weekend’s race at Dover because of a slump that has dragged deep into the season.

Tony Eury Jr. was removed as crew chief of Earnhardt’s No. 88 team Thursday. The two are cousins and have worked together during Earnhardt’s entire career.

“It seemed the harder we pushed, the more it unraveled,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “We need a new reason to get up and go to the track each morning, and the chemistry had broken down between them to the point where we just needed a fresh start.”

The pair left Dale Earnhardt Inc. last season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. But despite driving for NASCAR’s top team, they have one win in 48 races with Hendrick and are 19th in points, well behind teammates Jeff Gordon (first), Jimmie Johnson (fourth) and Mark Martin (12th). Earnhardt hit rock bottom with Monday’s 40th-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“Tony Jr. is a good crew chief,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had success, but this year we aren’t even mediocre. And the last couple weeks, we’ve arguably been one of the worst teams on the track. He’s really, really talented, and I feel a lot of disappointment and failure for not being able to take advantage of that. Maybe the truth is that we just aren’t meant to do it together. That’s tough to admit and even tougher to believe.”

Team manager Brian Whitesell will be the crew chief this weekend. Lance McGrew will take over in two weeks on an interim basis as Hendrick decides on a long-term plan for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

“I like Lance. He’s going to tell me like it is, and that’s what I want,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve worked with him in the past, and I also have a whole lot of trust in Brian. He’s going to make sure I’ve got what I need every week. I’m not worried at all about that. And who knows? This combination could be amazing.”

Hendrick said the team was committed to doing everything possible to get the team where it needs to be.

“It’s hard to put your fingers on what the problem is or was,” he said. “We just feel like with all the frustration we need a fresh start. We’ve all given it the best shot we could. … We’re just rolling up our sleeves, and we’re going to refuse to lose, refuse to quit until we get it fixed.”

Earnhardt and Eury spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing on the road course at Virginia International Raceway. Hendrick told them he was splitting them up when they returned Wednesday evening. He said they needed time to adjust to the split.

“I don’t know that they were 100 percent, but by this morning, both of them said they were good,” Hendrick said. “I don’t think they felt good when I told them, but I think they’ll feel better as the days go on.”

Earnhardt said he just doesn’t know what went wrong.

“I take at least half the responsibility on this, and when we’ve met, I told [Hendrick] I wanted to hear what I was doing wrong,” Earnhardt said. “We addressed my weaknesses and Tony Jr.’s weaknesses, and tried to figure out how to fix them.”

Eury will stay with Hendrick Motorsports in a research and development role. Whatever route Hendrick takes with Earnhardt, he’s giving Earnhardt the full-time use of Whitesell and Rex Stump, the lead chassis engineer.

Earnhardt has just three top-10 finishes this season and six finishes of 27th or worse. He’s close to falling too far behind to rally for a spot in the Chase. That’s unacceptable for a driver who went to Hendrick to win the Cup title that has eluded him his entire career.

Despite their shortcomings - two wins in the past 120 races - Earnhardt remained fiercely loyal to Eury and was pained when his fans blamed the crew chief for their failures.

“Every time I read in the paper that people are on his case, I feel like I’m sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed,” Earnhardt said in one of his early season defenses of Eury.

Hendrick never considering a split until Monday’s disappointment. Now he wants to “spark some magic.”

“Right now, we’ve got one boat that’s got a hole in it, and we’ve got to fix it,” he said.

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