Danica Patrick, Ryan Pemberton need to catch up
SPARTA, Ky. -- Mechanics in day-glo green work shirts wrenched on the undercarriage of the day-glo green race car, while another dangled at the waist from the window. Checklists were checked, preparations made on Friday morning for Danica Patrick to practice at Kentucky Speedway.
It was very much the same process as the previous 26 Nationwide Series race weekends, but different in one crucial way. Four days earlier, Tony Eury Jr. left JR Motorsports and his post as Patrick's crew chief. Instead of fretting over shocks and springs, he was back home, getting ready to drive an old truck to the auto fair and take in his first high school football game in about 20 years.
Shocks and springs were now the concern of Ryan Pemberton, who had been hired on Sept. 14 as competition director, replacing Tony Eury Sr. He wasn't overly concerned, but he was busy.
"We're playing catch-up right now," Pemberton said. "It's obviously a pretty steep learning curve from the basics to the more complex things. It's only so much time to get it all done, but so far it's gone really well. The guys have accepted things really well, and so far it's been a real pleasure other than just being a rush. It's been a rush in several senses."
Once practice began, the mundane but critical process of honing a car into race shape sounded little different over team radio -- minus the accent and the institutional knowledge of each other -- than in the 51 Nationwide races Patrick had run with Eury Jr.
For Patrick, who has seven races remaining in her first full-time Nationwide season before migrating to Sprint Cup full-time next season, the situation was bittersweet, but business.
"I'm not a part of the decision," she told espnW.com. "The reason for (Eury Jr.'s departure) is also not something I'm aware of. It's (JR Motorsports vice president) Kelley (Earnhardt-Miller) and (team co-owner) Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and their decision on what they want to do moving forward. I drive the cars."
Establishing a rapport and a working relationship quickly is crucial to short-term performance, but Pemberton said he ideally would like to find a full-time crew chief for the No. 7 Chevrolet so he can assume his competition director role full-time. Patrick said the switch could temper expectations for the final seven races of the season, simply because of their unfamiliarity with each other.
"Are we going to get along? Are we going to click?" she pondered. "How's he going to understand me when I say it's a little tight? A little bit tight to me isn't the same thing to someone else, and applying that to a car is a challenge."
Pemberton and Patrick had only spoken by phone until Friday morning. They met in the garage before the first practice, in which she was 15th-fastest of 43 cars. (She jumped to fifth in the final session on a mock qualifying run). Though Pemberton said there were "concerns and questions" during their initial conversation, he foresaw a "fairly routine" transition from Eury Jr., who had worked with Patrick since her first stock car tests in December 2009.
"A driver's a driver. I've worked with lots of them," he said. "I know the situation is maybe a little different, but when all is said and done, we've got a race car and she's driving it, and those things don't change.
"We talk about the race car and see where we're at, talk about our game plan and things we want to look at, things we want to try and some procedures. I don't expect anything different than any other situation I've been in before."
Patrick enters the race at the 1.5-mile Kentucky track 11th in driver points, with a pole and two top-10 finishes this season.
Earnhardt Jr. said on Friday that the decision for Eury Jr. to leave JRM was "mutual," and, at its core, over the direction of JRM as a company.
"He and me and Kelley all sat down and talked about it, and it ended with us deciding to not move forward as a group," Earnhardt Jr. said.
Pemberton said his observations of Patrick were of a driver who has "gotten better and better" considering her still-limited experience in stock cars. He found her run at Montreal, where she led 20 laps just before being undone by two mechanical problems, particularly impressive.
"She's had a lot of speed at different occasions that looked promising," he said. "She's had a lot of good runs, and they've come up short. The last one was the road course race. She looked spectacular and didn't get a chance to swing the bat, so to speak. She's had a few RBIs, she's at the plate ready to win the game, and somebody gets thrown out at second and the game's over.
"She's been competitive. It's about being put in a situation to be competitive and having a chance at the end of the race to have a good finish. I think those are some of the potentials right there in front of her."
Patrick said Eury Jr. had texted her on Friday morning. Business moved on. But there was a personal sentiment, too.
"I'll miss him," she said. "I will. I got along with Tony, really."