AVONDALE, Ariz – The two Juniors were mad – Dale Earnhardt and Tony Eury.
Following their qualifying lap for last Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 500, the two – driver and crew chief – stood in the garage going over what had just happened.
"I want to qualify in the top five every week," Eury Jr. explained later. "It's not going to happen, but that's our goal, and we were just upset that we missed it."
Missed it so badly they started the race … 13th.
My how expectations have changed.
"Yeah," Eury Jr. said with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, "you could say that."
Expectations have always been high when it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr. But for the first time in his career, he finally has the tools to live up to them.
No, it wasn't easy for Junior fans to watch him leave the company his father built, Dale Earnhardt Inc., for archrival Hendrick Motorsports, but if there are any lingering doubts about whether he made the right decision, consider the following:
A year ago when Earnhardt Jr. was still with DEI, Eury Jr. didn't even think about qualifying. He couldn't because he didn't have the time. Instead, he'd use the entire pre-qualifying practice session trying to figure out how to set the car up for the race.
"We're like, 'Alright, we gotta do the best we can on Sunday. If we qualify 20th, we won't worry about it because we'll know where we stand on raceday,' " explained Eury Jr., who made the switch from DEI to Hendrick with his cousin, Dale Jr.
Meanwhile, their competition was already three, four steps ahead of them in figuring out what the cars needed on raceday. Instead of spending the week leading up to a race wrenching on the cars, crew chiefs at shops like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were sitting in front of a computer inputting data into a simulation program.
By the time they arrived at the track, they'd already formulated an idea of things they wanted to try on the car, while having also ruled out a handful of ideas the simulator told them wouldn't work.
It was a luxury Eury Jr. didn't have at DEI.
"No, nothing even close," he said.
"It used to be, do I need some right-rear spring? Do I need the spring up? Does it need springs down?" Eury Jr. explained. "Then I'd have to spend three practice runs to figure that out.
"Now, I can sit in front of the computer and pretty much rule out one or the other. Instead of making a lot of (practice) runs and not being productive, I can scale it down and have 10 runs that are productive to where I can say, 'This should work.' "
It's no coincidence that for the first time in his career Earnhardt Jr. is showing the type of consistency it takes to win a championship. Hendrick has given Eury Jr. the tools to take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. And if he can't figure it out, he can lean on one of the other three teams (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Casey Mears), another luxury of being at Hendrick.
Prior to last Saturday's race in Phoenix, Earnhardt and Co. struggled to find the right setup. So what did they do? They asked Jimmie Johnson for his. The result? Earnhardt Jr. led a bunch of laps and wound up finishing seventh –
his sixth top 10 in eight races.
"At DEI, it was us and the 1 car (Martin Truex Jr.), so if we were off and the 1 car was off, there ain't nothing to pull from," Eury said. "With having three good race teams to pull from, I mean, one of us is going to hit it."
As it turns out, there really was something telling about Earnhardt's 2007 season. The questions about all those blown engines – namely, what if he hadn't had six of them, would he have made the Chase for the Nextel Cup? – were more than just playing the what-if game. Maybe he was consistent all along, we just couldn't tell.
All of this leaves one wondering how things could have been any better had Earnhardt Jr. stayed at DEI. Since joining Hendrick, there has been no year to "jell" with the organization, no taking one step back to move two steps forward.
"(Hendrick) just doesn't have any weak areas," said Earnhardt Jr., who's currently third in the points standings.
"They work on anything they see they need to fix, immediately."
Yes, it's still early in the season, and, yes, Junior is still looking for that elusive first victory with Hendrick, which would snap a personal 70-race-and-counting winless streak. But right now, he has to be considered one of the five favorites to win this year's championship, which is something that couldn't have been said with a straight face a year ago.
"What Hendrick Motorsports brings to the table, if we take what we've always done and apply that to what they're giving us, you can't go backward," Eury Jr. said. "We ain't got but one direction to go."