Sunday, September 14, 2008
Updated: September 22, 1:18 PM ET
Hendrick busy being referee between volatile Earnhardt and beleaguered Eury
By David Newton
LOUDON, N.H. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s five-second lead had long evaporated because of a bad set of tires 214 laps into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR's most popular driver was having a fit as he fell back in the field.
"We need a security guard over there watching those son-of-a-bitches," he screamed over his in-car radio. "
I can't figure out why we keep f------ up in the middle of all these races. Every f------ time."
In stepped Rick Hendrick.
The owner of Hendrick Motorsports has donned a lot of hats over the years. Lately he's been playing amateur psychologist in an attempt to help Earnhardt keep his cool under such pressure situations and give crew chief Tony Eury Jr. useful information instead of anger.
"You've got a great car right now," Hendrick said. "Just take it easy."
Responded Earnhardt, "This is f------ bulls---."
"You got a bad set of tires," Hendrick responded. "It happens."
Scoffed Earnhardt, "I need to find another series that runs half-distance races."
"You can do this," Hendrick said in a calm voice. "Talk to everybody about what the car is doing. We can make the right adjustments."
Earnhardt continued his onslaught, saying, "I'm pissed off. Sometimes you go your fastest when you're pissed off. So we'll see."
Said Hendrick, "Take it out on those guys in front of you."
Earnhardt didn't rally for the victory in the first event of the 10-race Chase. But he did finish fifth in a race Greg Biffle won, moving Earnhardt within 50 points of Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson for the top spot.
Hendrick said he believes with a little more patience Earnhardt can become a championship driver. He believes much of the criticism Eury has taken when things have gone awry on the No. 88 car are as much or more Earnhardt's fault for not giving his cousin good feedback.
"They're like brothers," he said. "They can fuss and say things, but when you've got millions of people listening
Tony gets some unfair [criticism].
"If he doesn't want Tony to go anywhere, if he's put a stake in the ground that he wants Tony Eury Jr., then he needs to treat him a little better on the radio."
Hendrick has been in Earnhardt's ear since Earnhardt and Eury blew up at Bristol last month after their third straight finish of 18th or worse. The results since speak for themselves.
Earnhardt was 11th at California, fourth at Richmond and fifth at New Hampshire after leading 79 laps.
"I think they can be better," Hendrick said. "I know Tony will be better to help him more if he's calmer when he's giving him information. When you say, 'I'm so loose, I'm so loose,' you've got to talk about your drive off and your entry so you know if you fix one you're going to hurt something else.
"I've had the benefit of listening to a lot of drivers over a number of years. To my knowledge, I've never had one that gave us good information when he's on the chip. It's better information when he's got a little bit more time to think about it."
Hendrick recalled how calm and mild-mannered Earnhardt has been in the Nationwide Series car with Lance McGrew as his crew chief.
"Junior, he knows the car," he said. "He knows what he wants. He knows what adjustments he ought to make. But when you're driving you can't keep up with what adjustments you made a change ago."
Such was the case when Earnhardt got the bad tires. Instead of trying to logically help Eury figure out what to do on the next pit stop, he went on an expletive-laden rant.
"Those kind of things are going to happen," Hendrick said. "In this Chase, it's not going to get any easier. With better communications, we're going to run better."
When such things happen to Earnhardt, the blame always seems to go to Eury. The so-called Junior Nation has called for Eury's head so many times one has to wonder how he has survived this long.
"Junior will tell you, 'Don't take Tony away from me,'" Hendrick said. "I never thought about doing that. I actually had fans at the drag race [in Charlotte, N.C.] stop me and say, 'Boy, I heard you called Junior down the other day.'
"I was waiting on whether they were going to be pissed or not, but they were laughing about it."
Earnhardt admits he's too tough on Eury at times. He also insists he feeds off the shouting even though it led to their split a few years ago at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"I like getting riled up," Earnhardt said. "It motivates me."
At times Hendrick thinks it's funny. He jokes about it at the shop and calls Earnhardt a comedian.
But when the radio tirades get in the way of performance -- and Hendrick apparently believes they have -- the owner's going to do something to fix it.
"It is frustrating," Hendrick said. "He wants it so bad, and I don't want to take anything away from that. The crew just hasn't been around him so they don't know if he's that upset.
"They all need to be as sharp as they can be and need to think and go back and recap things and talk about things. I told him to take care of the car, we had a five-second lead today. Tony couldn't do any more."
Hendrick wouldn't be so involved if he didn't believe Earnhardt had the talent to win a title like teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have combined for six.
He commended Earnhardt on the radio during the parade laps for accomplishing his goals of winning a race [Michigan] and making the Chase.
He told him he had what it took to hold the championship trophy nine weeks from now at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"The fans probably think he really wants to rip Tony apart, then he gets out of the car and wants to hug him," Hendrick said. "If he could just focus, he's got a real shot at this thing.
"I don't even think he realizes sometimes how strong he comes across. Hey, this is our first year. He's either going to wear me out or I'm going to wear him out."
Earnhardt still maintains he needs to get fired up every once in a while. When he gets in those moods, he's not sure even Hendrick can talk him off the proverbial ledge.
But Hendrick hasn't won seven titles by standing on the sideline.
"We're gonna try," he said. "Stay tuned. It's gonna get interesting."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I've had the benefit of listening to a lot of drivers over a number of years. To my knowledge, I've never had one that gave us good information when he's on the chip. It's better information when he's got a little bit more time to think about it.
-- Rick Hendrick