With a reconfigured car and improved teamwork, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has quietly
crept into contention for the Cup chase
Back in the summer
of 1994 Tony Eury Jr. saw the same scene unfold nearly every morning. As he
performed odd jobs at Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s race shop in Mooresville, N.C., Eury
would look out the front window across Highway 115 a little past 7:30 and see
19-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. roaring out of his driveway in his red '90
Silverado. Little E was regularly late for his job--changing oil at his dad's
car dealership--and his habitual tardiness prompted Eury to wonder, Will my
scrawny little cousin ever become a responsible adult?
"A lot of us
asked that question then," says Eury, who is now Earnhardt Jr.'s crew
chief, with a laugh. "But this year his commitment to the team--doing
things like taking time to tell me what's going on with the car--is the reason
why we're where we are. He has matured."
fifth on Sunday in the USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway--Earnhardt's
eighth top 15 finish in his last nine races--Junior and his number 8 Budweiser
team are third in the Nextel Cup standings. Earnhardt has won only one race
this year, but he has steadily moved up in the points standings over the last
two months. It's hard for NASCAR's most popular driver to do anything under the
radar, but Junior's ascent this season has been remarkably quiet; the sea of
red-clad Earnhardt fans at Chicagoland made more noise when Jeff Gordon spun
out Matt Kenseth late in the race than they did when Junior crossed the finish
line for his sixth top five finish of the season.
At this juncture
last year Earnhardt was 13th in points and struggling with an underpowered,
ill-handling car. But eight days after he ended his 2005 season 19th in points,
the rebuilding of the Bud team began when Richie Gilmore, the head of motor
sports at Dale Earnhardt Inc., called a dozen of DEI's top people into a
meeting to discuss the future of the company. Gilmore told his crew chiefs and
top engine builders, engineers and fabricators that there was only one way to
make the DEI Chevys of Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. championship-caliber
in '06: better teamwork. " Jack Roush didn't get smart overnight,"
Gilmore told the group that day, referring to the Ford owner who has won two of
the last three championships. "The Roush people put their heads together,
and that's why all five of their cars were in the Chase [last year]. Everyone
must get in line with this. If you don't, you should leave right now."
started sharing notes on everything from aerodynamics to gear ratios. "We
have a completely open-book policy among the teams now," says Eury Jr.
"We didn't have that last year."
reconfigured the body design of the number 8 Chevy, which has improved the
aerodynamics of the car and allowed its wheels to gain better traction through
the turns. Late Sunday afternoon, after Earnhardt had parked his Chevy along
pit road, he hopped out of the cockpit and exchanged high fives with his crew.
As he walked away from his car, a half-grin creased his face when he was asked
if this will be the year he wins his first title. "We're like a
prizefighter who's only got that one big knockout punch," said Earnhardt.
"We're not as well-rounded as we need to be. If we can get a little more
power in the engine and be a little quicker through the corners, then we'll
really be somebody to be reckoned with."
Nasty Spin Cycle
On March 26 at
Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth (below, top) and Jeff Gordon
(bottom) were running in the top five late in the race when Kenseth nudged the
nose of his number 17 Ford into the tail of Gordon's number 24 Chevy. The move
caused Gordon to crash; on pit road later, he shoved Kenseth.
On Sunday, Gordon
got more payback. With four laps to go and Kenseth in the lead, Gordon pulled a
similar bump-and-run maneuver, which sent Kenseth spinning into the infield.
Gordon pulled away to win his second race of the season; Kenseth wound up