LOUDON, N.H. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. insists that he’ll be able to ignore the family drama at JR Motorsports when he gets behind the wheel at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.
He’s had plenty of practice.
The son of the Hall of Fame driver, who left the team founded by his father and run by his stepmother, is once again trying to separate family from business. Last week he fired his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., as competition director for JR Motorsports, and this week his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., also left the Nationwide Series team.
“It doesn’t really weigh on me when I go work. It’s something that I can easily put aside when I’m at the race track this weekend, or any given weekend,” Earnhardt Jr. said Friday before practice for the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I’m not in a position in my life to invest my focus in it with everything else I’ve got going on — driving race cars being the priority. And I won’t ever do that. I won’t overload myself or take away. Especially with the opportunity I’ve got right now to win the Chase, win the championship. I won’t let anything take away from that.”
Stock car racing has always been a family affair for Earnhardt Jr., the son and grandson of stock car drivers whose legendary father died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. After Dale Sr.’s death, his wife took over Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and Junior continued to drive for the team that bore his father’s name until he left in 2007 for Hendrick Motorsports.
But there was still plenty of family around.
His sister, Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, is his co-owner at JR Motorsports, along with Eury Jr. and Rick Hendrick. Eury Sr., whom everyone calls “Pops,” was the competition director, and Tony Jr. was the crew chief for Danica Patrick’s car in the Nationwide Series.
But two weeks ago, JR Motorsports fired “Pops” Eury as competition director, and this week Tony Jr. followed him out the door.
“It was not easy at all to sever the working relationship with ‘Pops’ or Tony Jr.,” Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. “But, you know, we’re a company that wants to improve over what we’ve been doing, and we’re making some changes to see if we can make that happen.”
Eury Jr.’s departure was more of a mutual decision, Earnhardt Jr. said.
“I thought Tony Jr. and us were going to move forward past the decision with ‘Pops,'” Earnhardt Jr. said. “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.”
The shakeup comes as Earnhardt Jr. tries to improve on his eighth-place finish in the Chase opener at Chicago, when he started at the back because of an engine switch and never threatened the leaders. NASCAR’s most popular driver, who has never won a Cup title, is seventh in the standings, 17 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
Earnhardt Jr. has raced at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 26 times, with 11 top 10 finishes and seven top-fives. But he has never won here despite a few strong performances, including 2003 when he led 120 of the 300 laps before finishing fifth.
“This is a track that I feel like owes me one,” he said. “We’ve been running here for a long time. We’ve had some good cars here, and we’ve had some cars capable of winning races. We just haven’t been able to finish the job. So, I kind of feel like it’s got to happen sooner or later, and I feel like that it needs to happen now.
“There’s a bit of urgency. Not a whole lot, just enough to keep us motivated and real positive. I feel pretty positive. I mean, this is a good race track.”