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Being Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief was never easy

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Dale Jr.'s biggest races (1:42)

As Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final race approaches this Sunday, we look back at his biggest moments. (1:42)

It was early autumn 2010 and Lance McGrew just wanted some pizza. The crew chief of the No. 88 Chevrolet slipped into the local Italian buffet, a quiet joint in Concord, North Carolina, near his office at Hendrick Motorsports, figuring he could throw down a slice or two in peace.

He was wrong.

"I looked up and there was some stranger suddenly sitting across from me in the booth," he recalls. "I was like, 'Can I help you?' Of course, he said he was a big Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan and he wanted to know what I was doing to make the cars better because it had been too long since Dale had won a race."

McGrew didn't call for help. He didn't dial 9-1-1. He didn't even try to protect his pizza. After nearly a season and a half calling the shots for the race cars driven by NASCAR's undisputed biggest star, during which the team hadn't reached Victory Lane, the crew chief wasn't spooked at all by the intrusion. By now McGrew had come to expect it. People routinely stopped him at gas stations, the movies, family functions, wherever. By his estimation, about half always had suggestions as to how to better motivate his driver. The other half always told him that he had no idea what he was doing. This guy belonged to the latter half.

"I just politely smiled at him and said, 'Well, clearly I need help. So, you got any good ideas?' "

On any given Sunday, there are 40 crew chiefs atop the pit boxes of NASCAR Cup Series teams. They are stock car racing's head coaches, masters of multitasking who play equal parts strategist, engineer, general manager, budget director, human resources coordinator and sports psychologist. It has long been one of the most underrated and underappreciated gigs throughout all of professional sports.

But there is only one of those crew chiefs tasked with all of the above while also shouldering an additional line in the job description. That one added responsibility might be as difficult to manage all on its own as all the others added up.

"Being the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a true privilege," explains Greg Ives, current holder of the job. "But I don't care how long you've been in the sport of auto racing, there's no way you can really understand the difference of being in this particular job unless you've actually been in these shoes."

Ives is the ninth man to wear those shoes, to become a member of the Junior Crew Chief Club. Some served for only a handful of races, others for a handful of years, spread out over the 19 seasons that make up Earnhardt's likely NASCAR Hall of Fame career. When the checkered flag falls over Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday evening, Ives will also officially become the club's final member

At the close of that 2017 season finale, Earnhardt will retire from full-time Cup Series racing, making an earlier-than-expected departure from the cockpit at the age of 43 due to lingering concussion-like symptoms. It will be his 631st career start, with 26 race wins.

If Ives has his way, that number will be bumped up to 27. But to Earnhardt's legendarily rabid "Junior Nation" fan base, 26 or 27 isn't enough. Even if he were going for 76 or 77, that wouldn't have been enough, either.

"There is a different kind of passion with that group of fans that doesn't exist anywhere else in NASCAR, or maybe anywhere, period," explains Steve Letarte, who served as Earnhardt's pit boss for four seasons, spanning 144 races and earning 5 wins, second-best among the nine Junior Crew Chief Club members. "Man, I was Jeff Gordon's crew chief, so when I moved over the 88 car in 2011 I thought, no big deal, it'll be the same, right? Wrong."

He found that out his first official day on the job, still nearly three months away from his first race weekend with his new driver. At Earnhardt's invitation, Letarte traveled with the racer to Las Vegas, where Junior was attending a luncheon to accept his eighth consecutive Most Popular Driver Award. After the lunch, the two had to stroll down a 150-foot hallway so that Earnhardt could knock out some media interviews.

"We could barely get down that hallway because of all the screaming fans," recalls Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports. "They had done their homework, figured out where he was going to be, and were packed in there waiting for him. And they do that everywhere. I mean, everywhere. All due respect to all of the other drivers, but that doesn't happen for them. All of the sudden I realized, 'Oh man, if we don't win races then these people are going to come after me, aren't they?' "

They did indeed. It took Letarte and Earnhardt 51 races, nearly a season and half, to earn their first victory together. The next season, 2013, they went 0-for-36, but did make the Chase postseason and Earnhardt finished fifth in the championship standings, his best effort in seven seasons. Letarte, the only member of the Junior Crew Chief Club to truly embrace social media, spent more than a little time wishing he hadn't.

"It's never the driver's fault, it's the crew chief's fault, that's just how it is, but it can get tiresome hearing how stupid you are day-in and day-out, so you lash back, and that's a mistake," he confesses. "One time in particular a guy really went after me and I went back at him and then I just forgot about it. The next day I hear from him and he's begging, 'Please, man, get them off of me!' When I'd turned on him, so did Junior Nation. They just killed this poor guy until I told them to back off. I realized, 'Hey, I signed on for this.' Other people didn't."

Those who did, like Letarte, all believed they knew what they were getting into, only to find they did not. For no one does this realization hold more truth than Tony Eury Jr.

"The other Junior" has known Dale Junior their entire lives. You see, they're cousins. Their grandfathers, Ralph Earnhardt and Ralph Eury, were close friends. Their fathers, Dale Earnhardt and Tony Senior, were married to sisters, the daughters of fabled engine builder Robert Gee, and had the juniors with those daughters.

When Earnhardt Sr. became a NASCAR team owner, he hired Eury Sr. to run his operation. Later, when Dale Earnhardt Incorporated started fielding Cup Series cars, Tony Senior was named as Dale Junior's crew chief, the founding father of the Junior Crew Chief Club.

The elder Eury remains the longest-tenured and most successful member of that club, with 15 wins over 183 races. Added with their success in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series, where they won 13 races and back-to-back championships, and the Senior/Junior Era is rightfully regarded as the Good Ole Days by Junior Nation.

Tony Senior's right-hand man during that run of triumph was his son. Eventually, son overtook father atop the pit box of the No.8 Budweiser Chevy, winning at Richmond in 2006 even as DEI began to falter in the years after Earnhardt Sr.'s death.

So naturally, when Earnhardt Jr. left the remains of his father's operation to join the superpowers of Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he brought his cousin with him as crew chief. It all felt so can't-miss, especially when they won their first race in their very first outing, taking the Budweiser Shootout all-star event. Then it started missing, as the No.88 won just once over its first 48 races. However, the darts pointed at Tony Jr. by Junior Nation rarely missed.

The criticism reached such a tenor that not even the man himself could quiet it down. In March 2009, after starting the season with four finishes of 10th or worse, Earnhardt defended the man he called "more my brother than my cousin" during a media session at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"I've said it 100 times, I don't know, it just doesn't seem to make a dent, but the guy I feel bad for is Tony Junior," Earnhardt said then. "He gets criticized so badly. Everybody in this room, and some of you have criticized him yourselves, know how smart a guy he is, truly knows he's a good mechanic and a solid crew chief and he wanted to do this for a living just like I do. I'll take the fall.

"I'd rather be crucified than him ... I feel like I'm sending my brother to jail for a crime I committed."

Only two months later, sitting 19th in the championship standings, Eury was out. He was replaced by McGrew after Brian Whitesell joined the club by subbing for one race. He went back to work alongside his father at Dale Junior's race team, JR Motorsports.

As new men have become members of the Junior Crew Chief Club, the challenges of the office are addressed in a manner not unlike the transition of power at the White House. Those who have held the job before keep an open-door policy, willing to dole out advice should their successors come asking for it.

Before Letarte turned out the lights in his office for the final time, he left a "WIN" sticker on the computer monitor about to be inherited by Ives, along with two short notes of advice: "Do your thing" and "Cancel out the noise." McGrew is down the hallway, still with Hendrick Motorsports in Research & Development.

Over three seasons, Ives has never really taken the fan bait, even as he's frequently been piled on over the last two seasons while the team hasn't been able to replicate the three-win success of his first year on the job. A large part of that drought no doubt stems from the driver's health, as well as Hendrick's organization-wide struggles. But that hasn't stopped the Sunday evening social media avalanches pointed in his direction. He doesn't flinch.

"I've even tried to give him a hard time about it, joking," says Earnhardt, who has taken to Twitter to defend his crew chief against those attacks. "But he's so focused all the time, I honestly think he has no idea that's even happening."

That makes Ives the perfect bookend of the Junior Crew Chief Club, as the member closest in demeanor to Eury Sr. Pops was too old-school to ever hear or read any venomous rants spewed toward him. Between his success and making his living in the fledgling days of the internet, noise wasn't as much of a problem. But it certainly existed.

"I've told Junior he shouldn't feel bad about any of this because it's nothing new, especially when it comes to his name," says Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds, who moved atop the pit box of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1997 for another Dream Team pairing. They won once in two years. The NASCAR archives are filled with photos of McReynolds in the garage with his head despairingly thrown into his hands.

"Looking back now, Dale was hurt," McReynolds said. "But that's not what I heard when I went to the grocery store. Even after we won the Daytona 500, I was an idiot."

Believe it or not, there was a time when Richard Petty fans grew impatient with crew chief Dale Inman (also his cousin) to the point that Inman left the team. Now they are together in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When Robbie Loomis "only" won one championship with Jeff Gordon after replacing departed visionary Ray Evernham, Rainbow Warrior fans dogged Loomis at every turn. That 2001 title ended up being Gordon's last.

The crew chief who replaced Loomis in 2006 was Steve Letarte.

"We won six races and lost the championship by one spot to our teammate [Jimmie Johnson] and fans were giving me a hard time," Letarte said. "That's why I thought I knew what to expect when I went to work with Junior. But let me say it again, I was so wrong."

However, those who have held down the job of holding NASCAR's most popular lightning rod are all proud of having been Earnhardt's crew chief, no matter how short or long their time on the gig. As the calendar pages turn and the superstar's career speeds toward it's close, they find themselves appreciating their experience more than they did during the actual experience.

And in a twist, those who once worked so hard to make those crew chiefs' lives so miserable now seem to be doing a little more appreciating of their own.

"Those same folks who used to wear me out all the time with 'Why don't you win more?!' now they tell me all the time that they miss me," Letarte says. He is closing out his third season in the broadcast booth, yet never gets through a day without hearing from Junior Nation, this time begging him to go back to his old job. What they remember is 2014, Letarte's "lame duck" year which began with the announcement that he would be retiring at season's end to join NBC. Earnhardt won four races, including the Daytona 500.

What Letarte remembers are his less-than-pleasant interactions both before and even during what will go down as Earnhardt's last truly spectacular season.

"I bet I hear that 'You should come back and crew chief the 88 car again" stuff twice as much now as I used to hear the other bad stuff back then. I tell them, 'Thanks, but I really like this job I have now.' Now I can make the wrong call on two tires or four and no one yells at me for it."

Or ruins pizza night.