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Hendrick better but less fun for Earnhardt Jr., Eury

Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. are in their first season at Hendrick Motorsports after leaving DEI.

Associated Press

Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. are in their first season at Hendrick Motorsports after leaving DEI.

Tony Eury Jr. loved old times with the old boys. Most of them were either related or so tenured in friendship, they considered themselves kin. His father and namesake was the crew chief and later a trusted voice when Eury Jr. took over the job on the No. 8 Chevrolet at Dale Earnhardt Inc., in 2005. His cousin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was the driver, NASCAR's biggest star.

But an acrimonious relationship between Earnhardt and his team owner/stepmother, Teresa, prompted him to leave the team his late father created for him. He joined powerful Hendrick Motorsports in search of contentment and the competitive advantages that eluded DEI.

His cousin came with him; actually Eury left in the final weeks of last season to "go to college" in Hendrick's institution of higher winning. The decision was validated immediately with a victory this season, a standing inside the top five in driver points most of the season and a berth in the Chase for the Championship.

It's what they wanted and still want. But it's different now. Though satisfying professionally, less enjoyable.

"This is more work," Eury said.

Still, those days bring a smile to Eury's face. Earnhardt won 17 races — including the 2004 Daytona 500 — in nine Cup seasons at DEI, plus Nationwide series titles in 1998 and '99.

They raised a lot of Cain together, seemed to revel in each other's successes and tore at each other to attain them — a process that continues as evidenced by Earnhardt's radio rebuke of his cousin last week — and they thrived on the notion, however true, that they were the little guys.

"It was kind of like fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants but yeah, it was fun over at DEI," Eury, 35, said. "We were Saturday night racers, doing the best we could with what we had and had a lot of fun doing it. When you come over here, you have a lot more resources, you study a lot more, you're working a lot harder."

Eury, a scruffy guy from North Carolina, is the antithesis of the other three Sprint Cup crew chiefs at Hendrick. But he's one of the last successful seat-of-the-pants crew chiefs.

That's not to suggest he didn't want to learn. In his first weeks in Hendrick's shops last season, unencumbered by having to prepare a car for races, he began integrating himself personally and professionally. He chatted up engine builders, shock specialists and janitors if he thought it could help the No. 88 Chevrolet go faster this season. General manager Marshall Carlson said it was something those employees were unaccustomed to from counterparts Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Steve Letarte,

"Tony Jr. is one of the smartest guys we've got at that whole place. He's as sly as a fox," Carlson said, laughing. "…He made friends with everyone through that place, front to back, so that when the season started, it was pretty neat to see everyone through the organization, all these channels of support they have, they were all pulling for Tony and Dale."

As focused as Eury has become, Earnhardt's demeanor seems to have evolved — more serious, less light-hearted, but that's because he, too, understands the opportunity at hand.

"I am so focused on this opportunity and I see how good the opportunity is," he said Friday before today's second Chase race at Dover. "So it is real easy to get frustrated when you are not realizing the potential every weekend, because I feel like we are a great team that should be in the thick of this."

Carlson said the organization has not tried to apply pressure on the new pair, but Eury said the Victory Lane photographs and trophies in the Hendrick museum do that just fine. So they race because they love it, but try to win because it's their job.

"It's satisfying when you win over here, but you're expected to win over here," Eury said. "…It's more business over here and it ain't as fun. Over there (at DEI), if we won a race, we beat everybody. It's like, 'All right, here's this little bitty team that waxed everybody.' "

Not anymore.

Hendrick better but less fun for Earnhardt Jr., Eury 09/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:37pm]
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