"Some days they were best friends, some days they were archenemies," says Gilmore. "Something had to be done."
A few weeks into the off-season Gilmore called Earnhardt into his office at DEI and informed Little E that the two DEI teams were going to switch crew chiefs, crews and cars for the 2005 season. This meant that Eury Jr. would become the crew chief for Earnhardt's DEI teammate Waltrip, and Pete Rondeau, who had been Waltrip's crew chief, would be in charge of Earnhardt's car. Upon hearing Gilmore's directive, Junior recoiled.
"No, let's just leave it," he said. "Let's not do this." Little E was afraid that his cousin's feelings would be hurt, but after Gilmore explained his reasons for making the switch--that the number 8 team was carrying too much family baggage, that the change would ultimately be good for Junior's career--Earnhardt agreed to the plan. "I trust your judgment," he told Gilmore before leaving his office.
Though Earnhardt didn't quite reach Victory Lane on Sunday, his third-place finish--which, given his qualifying struggles, is almost as impressive as last year's win--vindicates Gilmore's decision, at least momentarily. And by all appearances the Earnhardt-Rondeau marriage is off to a good start. While Junior is perhaps the biggest extrovert in NASCAR, the 39-year-old Rondeau is a man of few words. Unlike many in the sport, Rondeau, who grew up in Saco, Maine, has a relaxed demeanor, more befitting a family doctor than a big-time crew chief, and he's clearly had a calming effect on Earnhardt; even when Little E was struggling during Speedweeks, he stayed unusually upbeat, a fact that bodes well for the duo's future.
"I like Pete a lot," says Earnhardt. "I think this move will mature me."
Junior's car handled poorly for much of Sunday's race, but Rondeau kept tinkering with the setup at each pit stop. The handling slowly improved; still, at Lap 169 Earnhardt was stuck in 17th place. That's when he decided to challenge the limits of his race car, calmly telling Rondeau over the radio, "I haven't been getting nowhere all day. I'm going to start making some moves and see if they pan out."
Driving more aggressively, Junior charged through the field. By Lap 177 he was in 10th place. Then on Lap 195 he blazed past Tony Stewart on the high line to seize the lead. The sea of red-and-white-clad Earnhardt fans in the grandstands roared. It looked as if Junior was going to steal the race and repeat as champion, but three laps later Gordon, running alone without benefit of a draft, blew by Little E as they swept out of Turn 4. It was the fifth lead change in five laps--and it would be the last one of the day. No one had the juice to catch Gordon and his Hendrick engine.
Seconds after Gordon cruised past the finish line, Hendrick climbed down off the number 24 car's pit box. As he walked up pit road, dozens of rival crew members rushed to shake the owner's hand; a few fans, their eyes wet with emotion, patted him on the back. Then Hendrick, like his drivers all day, got in a hurry. He jumped over the pit wall and pushed through a crush of security guards. Victory Lane was just 20 feet away. Nothing will make his heartache disappear, but just before he reached the wild celebration in the winner's circle, Hendrick raised his arms into the air and did something that he hasn't done in a long time: He smiled. ?