BRISTOL, Tenn. -- A month into the season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already feeling the heat.
He can handle it.
Just lay off his cousin, please.
Earnhardt yesterday reiterated his fierce loyalty to Tony Eury Jr., his oft-criticized crew chief. Eury has occasionally drawn fire for Earnhardt's failure to win a Cup championship, and fan disapproval has increased with Earnhardt's slow start this season.
He came to Bristol Motor Speedway yesterday ranked 24th in the Sprint Cup Series standings, with just one Top-10 finish through the first four races.
Earnhardt said if anyone is to blame, it's him.
"The guy that I feel bad for is Tony Jr. He gets criticized so badly," he said. "Everybody in this room, and some of you have criticized him, know how smart a guy he is and that he's a good mechanic and a solid crew chief. He just wants to do this for a living, just like I do. I'll take the fall. I'd rather be crucified than him.
"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."
In some respects, he's right.
Eury had nothing to do with the two pit road mistakes Earnhardt made during the season-opening Daytona 500, and he wasn't inside the car when Earnhardt's contact with Brian Vickers triggered a nine-car accident that led to a 27th-place finish.
The engine failure the next week in California certainly wasn't Eury's fault, either. But after two races, Earnhardt was 36th in the standings, and his rabid fan base was starting to panic.
A 10th-place finish in Las Vegas and an 11th in Atlanta helped him climb from the back of the standings, but it's done little to quell the critics. Those who are against Eury want him gone, regardless of Earnhardt's steadfast insistence he's the right man for the job.
"There's risks between every driver and every crew chief, and either you work it out or you don't," Earnhardt said. "I think me and Tony Jr. do a pretty good job of working it out. Obviously, through everything we've been through, we still love each other to death, and we'd do anything for each other.
"I don't dread seeing him when I get to the race track. I can't wait to see him when I get to the race track. We really do enjoy working together."
The two have been together in some capacity since Earnhardt first entered NASCAR in 1996. Their only time apart was when Earnhardt's stepmother, Teresa, insisted they be split during the 2005 season because of the way they'd bickered to close out the year before.
The split was an unmitigated disaster.
Although Eury was happy working with Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt was in a freefall that derailed the entire year. When Earnhardt failed to earn a spot in the Chase for the championship, Eury was sent back to run the team with 10 races to go in the season.
Earnhardt still finished a career-worst 19th in the standings.
But they rebounded to win a race in 2006 and make the Chase, finishing fifth but failing to contend for the title. The next year was one distraction after another as Earnhardt made the emotional decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc.
He signed with Hendrick Motorsports shortly after, and Eury was committed to stay with his cousin.
"I've made this clear ... the biggest thing was I wanted to be a part of it," Eury said yesterday. "That's all I'll ever say. I'd like to work on Dale Jr.'s cars and him have the trust that somebody is doing the best job they can possibly do for him, and he can be surrounded by the best people.
"Whether it's me setting up cars or me cleaning the cars, I couldn't care less. I just want to be a part of his deal."
As far as the people at Hendrick Motorsports are concerned, Eury is still the best man for the job.
"It's unanimous still to this day that Tony Eury Jr. is the guy for Junior and possibly the only guy for Junior," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "Their relationship and how they communicate is second-to-none."