Danica Patrick, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. click
Outwardly, they appear the unlikeliest of associates: the manicured race car driver with a tinge of an Upper Midwest accent, a taste for fine wine and Alexander McQueen and the crew chief with the days' growth of beard, North Carolina drawl and taste for canned beverages and untucked shirts.
But in Tony Eury Jr., Danica Patrick might have found the ideal mentor at JR Motorsports as she undertakes her first full-time season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and a crucial bridge to what is expected to be a full-time jaunt in Sprint Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing. And in Patrick, Eury Jr. might have found the high-profile project to showcase his aptitude for running a team after some equally high-profile but humbling disappointments.
Their legacies, it would seem, have been entwined since Eury Jr. became the crew chief for her initial stock car foray in late 2009, welcoming her to the sport with her first Krispy Kreme doughnut.
"I feel like he can tell my passion for wanting to do well, and I can definitely sense his," Patrick said in a phone interview. "And I just appreciate having someone working on my car and giving me advice who's been around a long time and someone that I don't have any question about. That's just a nice peaceful feeling for me to know that I just need to drive the car and he'll take care of the rest."
Groomed to be a crew chief by his father and namesake as much as his cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr. was groomed to become a driver by his, Eury Jr. has studied racing from the shop floor at the end of a broom to the pit box wearing a headset. He won two races with Earnhardt Jr. -- finishing fifth in points in 2006 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- and followed his cousin to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Earnhardt Jr. remains, but Eury Jr. was replaced as crew chief in late 2009 because of poor performance. Eury Jr. joined JR Motorsports later that season and now heads the research and development department at the new family team since the demise of DEI.
Patrick's development as a stock car driver is his most celebrated project yet for JR Motorsports. Class is in session almost every time Patrick is on the track. Eury Jr. and Patrick's spotters have offered lessons or advice on caution-period procedures, tire management and how to aggressively but safely enter the pit box -- a vastly different process than in IndyCar. They also clarify when contact from a competitor was a slight or a racing coincidence.
Eury Jr.'s qualifications are as much interpersonal as mechanical. As car chief and then crew chief for NASCAR's most popular driver in the heyday of his youth and popularity in the No. 8 Chevrolet, Eury Jr. understands how to work in the middle of a maelstrom.
"I can kind of lead her. I can help her see and deal with situations that are going to occur with the media, how you guys look at things," Eury Jr. said in a phone interview. "I can help her with the experience. I've been racing for 20 years, seen Dale Sr. and the things he went through on and off the track, seen it with Dale Jr., I've seen it with Michael [Waltrip]. That's three different types of drivers right there, and I know the experience of being in the limelight and behind the scenes of how to understand the business."
That's a trait Patrick said she not only covets but requires, even though she has worked in the glare of scrutiny as a competitor and public persona since her fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
"I think it does make a difference, having someone who's been exposed to having a lot of people around and photographers around, because it just does not shake him at all," Patrick said. "It still shakes me at times. I'm, 'Good Lord, there's a lot of people over there. There's a lot of people staring at me.' It's all in stride to him."
Years of hardening made him so, his father said, quipping, "It's always been [that way] in our life, so we don't know anything different.
"It just comes with the territory, and some of the people we've brought into our shops, even at DEI, had problems handling that," Tony Eury Sr. said in 2010 of working as crew chief for high-profile drivers like the Earnhardts. "They can't take the press when they're down on the team or crew chief or whatever."
But Eury Jr. can handle it.
"The first time [Danica] went to ARCA racing, it was 30-deep outside the trailer and I'd never seen that in my life. I told her this was bigger than I'd ever seen with Dale Jr.," he said. "But I think right now, the state of where we are, she's new and Danica's in town, but I think she's got the same popularity as Dale Jr. She's definitely got the fan support.
"It's really cool to see a woman succeed in this sport, but none has ever done it, and that's one of the challenges I really like about it. I'm doing something that no one has ever really done. All we got to do is win a race."
Ray Evernham, who won three Sprint Cup championships as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, called Eury Jr. Patrick's "greatest asset" because of his demonstrative support. Evernham -- whose wife, Erin Crocker, raced in the NASCAR trucks and Nationwide series -- said, "It is difficult to keep a team behind a female driver. If she doesn't meet expectations quick enough, the team loses faith and the driver loses confidence. Tony not only has to keep [Patrick] focused but has to keep the team motivated as well."
Patrick began the season promisingly enough in winning the pole for the Nationwide race at Daytona, but finished 38th after being bumped off track by teammate Cole Whitt. She improved a 30th starting position to a 21st-place result at Phoenix and was 12th at Las Vegas. A 19th-place finish at Bristol preceded a deflating 35th at Fontana, Calif., when a piece of steel pierced her car and prompted an engine failure. After being fourth in points three races into the 2011 Nationwide season, Patrick entered the early portion of the 2012 schedule with heightened expectations, but the slog has already forced the team to temper goals.
The relationship is working, though, even as Patrick has struggled for consistent results. She thanked Eury Jr. over team radio at Las Vegas for "being a veteran" after he dissuaded her from a course of correction on her No. 7 Chevrolet that he knew would make the car unmanageable. He was right, and she knew it immediately. Her 12th-place finish was a season-best.
Eury Jr. said Patrick has a "really good feel of the race car," but "sometimes she will kind of overanalyze things to a point to where you have to back her off a little bit."
The partnership would figure to end next year in a more conventional business, as Eury Jr. is a co-owner of JR Motorsports. But NASCAR is rife with odd relationships, and many things can be mitigated if there is a will. Stewart-Haas Racing subcontracted Patrick's 10-race Cup program this season to Tommy Baldwin Racing, with the owner as crew chief and SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli deemed "race strategist."
But in the present, Eury Jr. attempts to maintain a balance of positive pressure and levity.
"Some days we're really serious and we'll call her Danica," Eury Jr. said. "Some days we're joking around and call her D and call her Frog. It's a business and it's hard enough as it is, so we try to keep it on the light side."
"I generally don't hear it because I'm distracted driving," Patrick said of her many labels, "but I think he's called me 'babe' before, even, which does not bother me, by the way."
The mentorship has extended off the track, also, Eury Jr. said. Patrick admitted one of her goals is to "not get so mad," but Eury Jr. said there are times when she, like any driver, needs to make emotional adjustments. For that reason, he said he discussed with Patrick how she might have better handled her refusal to grant interviews after finishing 21st at Phoenix.
"She takes it well. She understands what I'm trying to tell her," he said. "She understands I'm here for her and I'm trying to help her any way I can."
Mechanically and intangibly.