NASCAR Notebook: Dale Earnhardt Jr. focused on Chase despite shakeup at JRMFor Clint Bowyer, expectations are high, and, accordingly, so is the pressure to perform well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
LOUDON, N.H. -- The past two weeks haven't been easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had to fire family from his JR Motorsports NASCAR Nationwide Series operation.
Competition director Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's uncle, was the first to go. Ten days later, on Tuesday, Earnhardt parted with cousin Tony Eury Jr., a minority owner of JRM who has served as Danica Patrick's Nationwide crew chief.
The tipping point was a perceived difference in direction and outlook. Earnhardt and sister/co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller favored stronger ties with Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies JRM with engines and chassis. Rick Hendrick also is part of the JRM ownership group.
Toward that end, JRM recently hired Ryan Pemberton, who will now serve as Patrick's crew chief. Pemberton and Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports Sprint Cup crew chief Steve Letarte are close personal friends.
"I thought Tony Jr. and us were going to move forward past the decision with Pops (Eury Sr.)," Earnhardt said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's Sylvania 300 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. "I wanted Tony Jr. to stick around. I think part of him wanted to, too. It was a real tough decision. It was one that wasn't easy to come by. But, it is what it is."
Earnhardt described the parting with Eury Jr. as mutual, the result of a Monday meeting at which they decided to go separate ways. Eury, who was relieved of his duties as Earnhardt's Cup crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports in May 2009, reportedly wasn't sold on the hand-in-glove relationship with Hendrick.
"For us to get to get better, we have to maximize our relationship with Hendrick," Earnhardt said. "Those resources are there at our fingertips. The companies that we compete against have those resources. The companies we want to beat, and are running up front in the series have those kind of resources. We needed to improve on that.
"That was really why decided to make the move of Ryan, because there's a great relationship between Ryan and my crew chief and Hendrick as well. They have a lot of trust in Ryan, and belief in Ryan. I felt like he could come in there and bridge that gap a little bit. That ultimately led to us having the conversation with Tony Jr., and him not quite agreeing with direction, and us deciding to go in different ways."
According to Earnhardt, the personnel moves at JRM, as wrenching as they were, won't affect his performance in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"It doesn't really weigh on me when I go to work," Earnhardt said. "It's something that I can easily put aside when I'm at the race track this weekend, or any given weekend."
For Clint Bowyer, expectations are high, and, accordingly, so is the pressure to perform well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Bowyer enters Sunday's Sylvania 300 tied for fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, 15 points behind Chase leader Brad Keselowski. Though Bowyer finished 10th in last Sunday's Chase opener at Chicagoland, he lost ground to race winner Keselowski and runner-up Jimmie Johnson.
Then again, Bowyer hasn't posted a victory at an intermediate speedway -- ever. New Hampshire is another matter. Two of Bowyer's seven career victories have come at the Magic Mile, and he led 49 laps in last year's Chase race before running out of fuel in the closing circuits.
Consequently, Bowyer comes to Loudon expecting his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota to run well -- and under pressure to make up ground on the Chase leaders.
"You definitely need to capitalize on your good race tracks, and I think this is one of my good race tracks, so it's definitely important to capitalize on that and get myself closer to the front," Bowyer told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at NHMS during a question-and-answer session behind the No. 15 transporter.
"This is a track where we can gain some ground, and we need to make sure we do that."
Bowyer feels confident he can live up to the expectations with a strong finish.
"There's a reason there's some pressure," Bowyer said. "It's because we've performed here, and we need to do it again. I feel like we can back that up, and I'm fairly confident in that. This is just one of those tracks where you just kind of go in, and usually things work out, you know?
"(But) you don't take that for granted. I did run out of gas leading here one time, and I think I finished like 25th (actually 26th in last year's Chase race), so that wasn't much fun."
If Bowyer is to win on Sunday, he'll have to beat Denny Hamlin, who earlier this week called his shot and promised to win the race. Hamlin was fastest in qualifying trim in Friday's opening practice, with Bowyer ninth.
"I guess he enjoys pressure, because that certainly places a lot of pressure on you," Bowyer said of Hamlin's promise. "Who knows? I'm going to call his bluff."
Most Chase contenders are focused on the one-mile flat track at Loudon, but Jimmie Johnson took a moment to reflect on the third race track in the Chase, one-mile, high-banked concrete Dover.
If Johnson looks on Dover more fondly than most other drivers do, there's a reason. The five-time Cup champion is a seven-time winner at the Monster Mile, with a record that includes victories at Chase races there in 2005, 2009 and 2010. Johnson also won the spring race at Dover this year and expects to run the same car in the Sept. 30 AAA 400.
"So far it's been a great track for us," Johnson said. "If we can run up front and kind of control the race and control who we are racing around, I feel like we can make up a lot or hopefully distance ourselves.
"I want to come out of (New Hampshire) with the points lead, and hopefully we can distance ourselves from the guys."