Earnhardt disappointed by criticism

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. says there have been no discussions with team owner Rick Hendrick about changing crew chiefs because of his slow start to the Sprint Cup season.

And he hopes there never are.

NASCAR's most popular driver is 24th in points heading into Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The start has fueled speculation that crew chief Tony Eury Jr. could be out if performance doesn't improve soon.

"He hasn't given me any indication," Earnhardt said of Hendrick replacing his cousin. "He would, certainly. Hopefully, a month or two in advance so we could talk about it."

Criticism of Eury has been the most disappointing part of this season for Earnhardt.

"The guy I feel bad for is Tony Jr.," Earnhardt said. "He gets criticized so bad. Everybody in this room . . . knows how smart of a guy he is, certainly knows he's a good mechanic and a solid crew chief.

"He just wanted to do this for a living just like I do. I'll take the fall. I'd rather be crucified than him. Every time I read in the paper that people are on his case I feel like I'm sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed."

Eury has been with Earnhardt since he came to Cup in 2000 with the exception of 26 races in 2005 and the last few races of 2007 when Eury moved to HMS after Earnhardt announced he was going there.

Through 2004, Eury was the car chief with his dad, Tony Eury Sr., acting as the crew chief, but many insist Eury Jr. called most of the shots.

"I just like racing with him," he said. "That's what I want to do for the rest of my life. Whether I get to do that or not I don't know."

The relationship has been a target for criticism for years. It came to a head at the end of the 2004 season when they opted to split, and again last season when Hendrick noted Eury might get more out of the car if Earnhardt was less volatile in radio communication.

"Maybe we're not the best combination out there, but if we're both on our 'A' game at doing what we should be doing, and with a little bit of luck and a break here and there, we'd be just as good as anybody else out there," Earnhardt said.

Teammate Jeff Gordon agreed, saying it was unanimous that Eury should be the crew chief for Earnhardt when he arrived at HMS and it remains unanimous.

"Possibly the only guy for Junior," he said with a laugh.

Gordon said there aren't many in the garage that can handle being in the eye of the Earnhardt storm the way Eury does.

"Plus the uniqueness of their relationship and how they communicate is second to none," he said. "We all know it's easy to get through the tough days. While those guys scream and yell, at the end of the day they are smiling and joking."

Earnhardt said there are days he wishes Tony Eury Sr., who was his crew chief when he won consecutive Nationwide Series titles in 1998 and 1999 and through his first five Cup seasons, had a role with the team.

"But I don't want to change Tony Jr.'s position or authority to have Tony Sr. around," said Earnhardt, who won 16 of his 18 Cup races with Eury Sr. the crew chief.

Earnhardt isn't sure there is a perfect driver/crew chief combination.

"Everybody has got flaws," he said. "There's riffs between every driver and crew chief. They just work it out or they don't. Me and Tony Jr. do a pretty good job of working it out.

"Obviously, through everything we've been through we still love each other to death and we'd still do anything for each other. When I get to the racetrack I can't wait to see him. We really do enjoy working together."

And Earnhardt understands the best way to take pressure off Eury is to run better.

"I'm out there busting my butt trying to make this happen," he said. "That's my goal. 'Til nobody will employee me in this sport, that's my goal. I just wish it was an easier job for him."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.