In the four races following the LeMans incident, the Budweiser team was struggling, posting finishes of 22, 31, 25, and what would be a 27th place finish that weekend. Junior qualified 5th for the Brickyard and was running 6th heading into the final lap, when a blown left-front tire sent him backwards through the field.In Earnhardt country, the natives were restless. Their driver was hurt and the team seemed ineffectual. Fans were in a headhunting mood, and their prime targets were crew chief Tony Eury Sr., and car chief Tony Eury Jr.
As everyone knows, the Eury's are not just team members to Junior, but family members as well. Eury Sr. is his uncle, having been previously married to Junior's aunt, and Eury Jr. is his cousin.At the post-qualifying Q&A session, the #8 teams' struggles were on everyone's mind. "I was telling somebody yesterday that it's kind of tough and difficult right now because we have two problems," Junior told the assembled press corps. "We have a driver that's trying to get right, and we have a team that's not right. And we've got to get our cars better. So we're working really hard. We talked, and we tried not to get crazy and move people and change things and make rash decisions, because Teresa (Earnhardt) and I both believe you don't change partners in the middle of the dance."
Junior seemed to dismiss any rumors of friction with the Eury's, but the media pressed on. Interviewer: "Do you sometimes wish you had a (different) crew chief, like Chad Knaus or Matt Borland (crew chiefs of Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman)?"
Dale Junior: "I don't really know what it would be like to go to the race track with anybody but Tony Jr. and Tony Sr. I don't know if I'd want to, really. They're family. It's hard for a lot of people in this business to understand, but how much I care about them overrides even the worst season you can have. That's more important to me. It's more important to me that me and Tony Jr. and me and Tony Sr. have a good relationship. That's way more important than any championship. I've always felt like I would race with them forever ... As long as I've been working with these guys, I don't know if I could (switch to somebody else). You could put me with Chad, but you might not have the same results. Aside from that, my relationship with them is too important to go away over trying to win a championship."
At the time, Junior's statement silenced the critics. It was construed as his definitive response to speculation that he and the Eury's might part ways; particularly the sentence, "I've always felt like I would race with them forever."After all, the three had been together since Junior's Busch racing days, and Eury Sr. was handpicked by Dale Earnhardt Sr. to be Junior's racing teacher and mentor. As a unit, they won two consecutive Busch Series championships, and had considerable success at the Cup level, with 15 wins in 6 seasons including the 2004 Daytona 500.
December 2, 2004: Less than four months after the Brickyard interview, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated announced sweeping changes to its teams' personnel. Dale Junior and the Eury's did, in fact, part ways. Tony Eury Sr. was "promoted" to Director of Competition at DEI, and Tony Eury Jr. was named crew chief for the NAPA Chevy team with driver Michael Waltrip.The shakeup involved not just crew leadership but crewmembers as well. Eury Jr. took the entire #8 team with him to the #15, and vice versa. Dale Junior received Waltrip's team, including crew chief Pete Rondeau. When the changes were announced, Dale Junior confided, "There's a lot of things that needed to happen within the company to make it better, and people are stubborn about making changes." Stubborn? Was he referring to himself, the Eury's, or both?
"I really like working with Tony Jr.," he continued, "but, at the same time, the bad times were really, really bad. I told him, 'I don't want to lose you as a cousin and lose the family and friendship side of it. I don't care if we ever talk about race cars again, as long as you come over to the house and we visit each other all the time ... I think he can have a lot more success with another race car driver than he could with me, because we were so stubborn and disrespectful to each other. We didn't say five words to each other during happy hour at Homestead (in November). We had a real bad day. It can't be like that."
January 12, 2005: At Daytona testing, Dale Junior continued to field questions about the personnel changes on the #8 team. "I was a good racecar driver, but I wasn't necessarily a professional about how I was on the radio. I put myself in this situation (with a new team) so I could be a better person and a little more of a professional. One of the things I like about Pete is that he gives me a lot of respect." Respect? Was that something he felt was lacking on his team before the change?
Perhaps it was wishful thinking on Junior's part when he said that he and the Eury's would likely "race together forever." Or perhaps it took the frustration of a 5th place finish in the 2004 season to spur him to action, when for a time it seemed like the championship had been within his grasp. Either way, the dramatic shakeup took many by surprise.
For his part, Tony Eury Sr. seemed to express relief at the change, citing Junior's oft-tempestuous race day persona. "It's something that Pete's team will have to learn to handle, because it's on them now," Eury Sr. said last week. "You know Dale Jr.'s not going to keep his mouth shut."
An enigma is something puzzling, mysterious, not easily explained. On the surface, the DEI shakeup seems to fall into this category. Although there was clearly divisiveness, Junior seemed to indicate as recently as four months ago that he could not envision a time when he would be at the track without the Eury's by his side. Now, that vision is reality. On the other hand, when Junior said that his relationship with the Eury's was, "more important than any championship," it may have been a forecast of things to come.