Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 2:07PM; Updated: Friday June 30, 2006 2:34PM
Crew Chief of the Year: Tony Eury Jr.
Eury's ability to understand Juniorspeak has been a major factor in Little E's turnaround this season.
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
Last season was the worst of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Cup career. He struggled early, missed the Chase and went through two crew-chief changes. Late last season Eury Jr. -- Earnhardt's cousin and his crew chief from 1998 to 2004 -- returned to top of the No. 8 pit box. Not coincidently, the team hasn't been the same since.
Though Junior isn't a threat to win every week, he's been among the consistent drivers in the Cup series. Currently fifth in the standings, Earnhardt should easily make the Chase and, with a little luck, contend for the title.
What's the main difference between this year and last? The answer's obvious: Eury. In the offseason, Eury retooled the entire fleet of Budweiser Chevys to correct the cars' poor handling in traffic, a persistent problem for Earnhardt in 2005. What's more, Eury is probably the most capable person on the planet when it comes to deciphering what Little E is saying about the car -- "It's waaaay loose" or "It's twitchy" or some such -- and making changes to the setup during a pit stop based on that information.
Earnhardt and Eury are also getting along well this season at the track, which wasn't always the case in the past. As long as the E&E relationship doesn't implode like it did at Homestead in November 2004, they'll be in the championship hunt deep into the Chase.
Owner of the Year: Ray Evernham
Last winter Evernham made a decision that raised a lot of eyebrows in NASCAR: He eliminated the role of crew chief from his three teams. Instead of having one person with ultimate authority, Evernham wanted to structure his organization the way that Formula One teams are run. So he divided the role of the crew chief among a team director (who's in charge of race-day decisions), a car director (who has final say on the car's setup) and an engineer (who oversees things such as the car's aerodynamic package).
"We wanted to have more information-sharing going on, and I think we're accomplishing that," says Evernham, a former crew chief. "It's working especially well for the nine team."
Indeed, Kahne points to the new team structure as one of the main reasons he's been so successful this season. Like any sport, the teams that struggle in NASCAR often try to copy what the strong teams are doing, which means it may not be long before other organizations start employing the director/car director/engineer structure.