By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed loyal to his cousin and crew chief through last year's frustrating finish and this year's slumping start.
Amid wrong setups, misguided race strategies and pit-road problems, nothing seemed to tear the longtime duo apart.
Until team owner Rick Hendrick had seen enough.
Hendrick removed Tony Eury Jr. from his position as Earnhardt's crew chief Thursday, ending months of speculation concerning the struggles of NASCAR's most popular driver.
"It seemed the harder we pushed, the more it unraveled," Hendrick told The Associated Press. "We need a new reason to get up and go to the track each morning, and the chemistry had broken down between them to the point where we just needed a fresh start."
The pair left Dale Earnhardt Inc. last season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. But despite driving for NASCAR's top team they have one win in 48 races with Hendrick and are 19th in points, well behind teammates Jeff Gordon (first), Jimmie Johnson (fourth) and Mark Martin (12th). Earnhardt hit rock bottom with Monday's 40th-place finish at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"Tony Jr. is a good crew chief," Earnhardt said during an appearance at Motor City Casino in Detroit. "We've had success, but this year, we aren't even mediocre. And the last couple weeks, we've arguably been one of the worst teams on the track. He's really, really talented, and I feel a lot of disappointment and failure for not being able to take advantage of that. Maybe the truth is that we just aren't meant to do it together. That's tough to admit, and even tougher to believe."
Team manager Brian Whitesell will be the crew chief this weekend. Lance McGrew will take over in two weeks on an interim basis as Hendrick decides on a long-term plan for NASCAR's most popular driver.
"I like Lance. He's going to tell me like it is, and that's what I want," Earnhardt said. "I've worked with him in the past, and I also have a whole lot of trust in Brian. He's going to make sure I've got what I need every week. I'm not worried at all about that. And who knows? This combination could be amazing."
Hendrick said the team was committed to doing everything possible to get the team where it needs to be.
"It's hard to put your fingers on what the problem is or was," he said. "We just feel like with all the frustration we need a fresh start.
"We've all given it the best shot we could and I think the guys that are going to be lined up now on this team. ... We're just rolling up our sleeves and we're going to refuse to lose, refuse to quit until we get it fixed."
Earnhardt and Eury spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing on the road course at Virginia International Raceway. Hendrick told them he was splitting them up when they returned Wednesday evening. He said they needed time to adjust to the split.
"I don't know that they were 100 percent, but by this morning, both of them said they were good," Hendrick said. "I don't think they felt good when I told them, but I think they'll feel better as the days go on."
Earnhardt said he just doesn't know what went wrong.
"I take at least half the responsibility on this, and when we've met, I told (Hendrick) I wanted to hear what I was doing wrong," Earnhardt said. "We addressed my weaknesses and Tony Jr.'s weaknesses, and tried to figure out how to fix them."
Eury will stay with Hendrick Motorsports in a research and development role. Whatever route Hendrick takes with Earnhardt, he's giving Earnhardt the full-time use of Whitesell and Rex Stump, the lead chassis engineer.
Earnhardt and Eury are grandsons of Robert Gee, one of Hendrick's first employees. The two went through a rough patch that led to bickering at the end of the 2004 season when they raced for the championship at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Earnhardt's stepmother, Teresa, separated them at the start of 2005, a move that led Earnhardt to finish a career-worst 19th in the standings. They were back together before the end of the season, but won just one race together in 2006 as Earnhardt's relationship with his stepmother rapidly deteriorated.
The next year, Earnhardt embarked on one of the most high-profile free agencies in NASCAR history. He settled on Hendrick Motorsports, and Eury went with him.
Although they opened their first season at Hendrick by winning the exhibition Budweiser Shootout and a Daytona 500 qualifying race, Earnhardt didn't win a points race until the 15th event of the year. That was at Michigan, his only victory all season.
Still, consistency put him at the top of the title contenders when the Chase for the championship began. But Eury and Earnhardt moved away from what got them into the Chase and finished last in the 12-driver field.
This year, Earnhardt opened with two pit-road mistakes in the Daytona 500 that put him in position to later trigger a nine-car accident. The pit-road errors have plagued him most of the season, but the poor showings have spilled onto the track as well.
Earnhardt has just three top-10 finishes this season and six finishes of 27th or worse. He's close to falling too far behind to rally for a spot in the Chase. That's unacceptable for a driver who went to Hendrick to win the Cup title that has eluded him his entire career. His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, was a seven-time Cup champion before his death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Despite their shortcomings -- two wins in the past 120 races -- Earnhardt remained fiercely loyal to Eury and was pained when his fans blamed the crew chief for their failures.
"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," Earnhardt said in one of his early season defenses of Eury.
Hendrick never considering a split until Monday's disappointment. Now he wants to "spark some magic."
"Right now, we've got one boat that's got a hole in it and we've got to fix it," he said.