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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."
After finishing 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."
Team members 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."
Eury also 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."
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 22nd.