JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — His race day results with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a steady decline, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. lost confidence in his setups and strategies.

He quit talking with Earnhardt on the radio because every brief conversation was dissected by critical fans and media.

Earnhardt can feel the weight of NASCAR and its fans on him at times as the sport’s most popular driver. And when he failed, it was his cousin and loyal crew chief who often took the often unfair hit.

When team owner Rick Hendrick pulled the plug on the unproductive relationship in late May, Eury was ready to move on.

“At some point in time you have to weigh it and say, ‘Is it worth it?'” Eury said. “And it wasn’t.”

Eury was back at the track Thursday for the first time since the longtime duo were separated with Earnhardt in the midst of one of the worst starts of his career. He’ll be crew chief for Brad Keselowski’s Hendrick Motorsports team for Saturday night’s race at Chicagoland Speedway – a less pressure-packed position than working with Earnhardt.

Eury was excited, relaxed and talked about racing with “nothing to lose” this weekend, a sharp difference from his final races with Earnhardt.

Earnhardt and Eury signed with Hendrick last season in one of the most ballyhooed acquisitions in NASCAR history. All Hendrick got for his money was one victory in 48 races and endless speculation about the state of the cousins’ relationship.

Their season morphed from slow start to prolonged slump, to a series of mistakes and distractions that forced Hendrick into shuffling the lineup. Eury was moved into a research and development role, and Lance McGrew took over as Earnhardt’s crew chief.

He’s shown flashes of improvement, but his final results haven’t been much better since the switch, as Earnhardt has gone from 19th in points to 21st.

“A lot of people put him on a pedestal he doesn’t need to be on,” Eury said. “They put a lot of pressure on him to be somebody he’s not going to be.”

While Eury remained positive he could spark Earnhardt into a Chase for the championship contender, the results showed it was time for a change. He had mixed feelings about the decision. On one hand he was ready to leave the daily scrutiny that comes with the job. On the other, Eury felt he let down his cousin by not living up to the lofty expectations.

“Dale Jr. is a great race car driver, but I just think that he’s got so much pressure on him that he doesn’t enjoy it right now,” Eury said. “I told him, ‘Man, you just need to start enjoying yourself more.’ That’s kind of where I was at.”

So Eury escaped the weekly grind of the NASCAR circus, not even watching Cup races his first few weeks off. He spent time “chilling a lot,” but was thrilled when the chance came to call the shots for a promising prospect in rookie Cup winner Keselowski.

Eury’s father is Keselowski’s crew chief in the second-tier Nationwide Series.

When Tony Eury Sr. won the Nationwide race with Keselowski at Dover International Speedway, he became choked up as he defended his beleaguered son.

Eury Jr. and Earnhardt exchanged some texts and emotional phone calls after the move, but their more recent talks have been about anything but racing. They planned hunting trips and other activities far removed from the track.

“In no way, shape or form, am I going to let this sport get in between me and Dale,” Eury said.

Neither one appeared to handle the barrage of media coverage and fan dissatisfaction as well as they could have. Eury blamed the media pressures several times for Earnhardt’s erratic performance, and said he eventually tired of what he felt was nothing but negativity.

Earnhardt told The Associated Press in an interview last month that it was hard for the pair to get beat up so much from the outside.

“There’s a lot of journalism out there that disappoints you, and there’s a lot of stuff that was really, really hard on Tony Jr. and affected him personally,” he said.

What pained Eury even worse was the idea that he failed his father and the late Dale Earnhardt as the DEI leaders.

“They wanted me and Dale Jr. to go racing and we wanted to be the front of the company,” Eury said. “Them two wanted to retire and kick back and watch us. Losing Dale Sr. was a big hit on all three of us. We were trying everything we could to make Dale Jr. successful and it just wasn’t enough. I kind of felt like I let everybody down, to a point.”

On Thursday, Eury returned to a more gracious reception. He was applauded and cheered by some former crew members of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. organization when he finished a media session.

The maligned crew chief knows a solid finish this weekend with Keselowski could offer a small dose of redemption.

“I’m just glad Rick put me in a position where I could have a little bit more fun and do a little bit more,” he said.

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