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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dale Jr., Gordon stay positive despite criticisms

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A couple of Hendrick drivers have seen their teams take a lot of heat this week after their performances at Watkins Glen.

For Jeff Gordon, his team was just off. In what used to be a rare thing, but is now more common, the #24 car was simply not very strong and finished 29th. After watching Gordon run up front for more than a decade, weeks like this have his fans scratching their heads and that his team has lost its magic.

For the #88 car, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. is the one on the hot seat after a bad call to stay out and not pit left him with a disappointing finish of 22nd. Fans have been pretty harsh on Eury, not just this week but all season, and often question how he calls race strategy for Jr.

At MIS this weekend, both drivers defended their teams and claimed fans are overreacting.

Earnhardt said the harsh criticism of Eury is unnecessary, and said it comes in part because he works with the most popular driver in the sport.

“It’s pretty harsh at times for a guy who’s given everything he’s given to the sport,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t like that for Tony Jr. because he don’t deserve it. But working with me, I guess that is the breaks.”

He went on to say some of his recent struggles have come because the series has been going to tracks (Pocono, road courses) where’s he typically not strong.
“It is just typically not a good part of the season,” he said. “We’re always strong the first third and last third of the season … Starting here, we will start to see some improvement.”

Jr. went on to say the car was not very strong at the Glen anyway, so even with better strategy he wouldn’t have finished well, and had some strong words of support for Eury.
“I got his back and he’s got mine … We are human, we make mistakes, but he is damn sure the guy for the job in my opinion.”

The truth is somewhere between the angry fans who call for Eury’s removal and Jr.’s wholehearted endorsement (which I don’t fault him for giving, by the way). Eury’s not the worst crew chief out there, but he’s not the best. Just like any business, Hendrick Motorsports will look at how he’s performed when the season is over and decide if he’s still the right guy for the job. In my view, he’s doing OK. Jr. is fourth in the standings and is still a possible title contender. If things go terribly throughout the Chase for this team, that’s another story. But I bet Eury will have his job as his cousin’s crew chief for a while.

Falling star
Gordon’s case is whole different animal. They’re just not running that well this year at times. Gordon is 6th in points, but he’s 500 points out of 1st, meaning he’s been way behind a lot of weeks.

Despite that, Gordon isn’t worried, and also showed support for his crew chief while telling his fans to be patient.
“I think Steve Letarte is doing an awesome job. I feel like last week was not a great performance for us. We’ve had that happen this year,” Gordon said. “It’s just been one of those years. I believe in what we have. There are areas when we’re looking to get stronger and better. The fans have to just be patient and I remind everybody of what we did last year.”

Gordon said that after last week’s race, he received a text message from Mark Martin (who know he was so hip?) reminding him that the tough days make you appreciate the good ones even more. That’s the attitude he’s giving off as the Chase inches closer each week.

“I feel like those last 10 races are all good tracks for us, other than Texas,” he said.

In Gordon’s case, I think, overall, he will get the team turned around. But the reality is that he has become the third best team at Hendrick Motorsports, something I never thought I’d say when I saw him dominating the sport in the 1990s. He will win several more races in his career, and maybe even contend for a title once or twice. But he is far from his old self, which is not even a negative comment considering he used to be where Kyle Busch is now -- on top of the sport.

It’s like the old song goes: What goes up, must come down.


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