The most optimistic man in racing couldn't conceal a grin as he pondered the 2006 prospects of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "Our whole company is really looking forward to a fresh start," Richie Gilmore, the director of motor sports at DEI, said in October as he stood next to the number 8 Budweiser Chevy in the Talladega garage. "We've learned a lot of lessons this year--a lot--and we're going to be much stronger for it."
Gilmore has a plan to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back into the lead pack. Little E had the worst season of his six-year Cup career in 2005: He finished 18th in points and won only one race, prompting Gilmore to give DEI a makeover. His first move came in July when he let Michael Waltrip walk (he'll drive for Bill Davis Racing in '06), paving the way for Martin Truex Jr., the '05 Busch Series champ, to become DEI's second Cup driver.
According to several people at DEI, Earnhardt and Waltrip had a cool relationship and were reluctant to share data from test sessions. "Junior and I are about as close as any two drivers in this sport," says Truex Jr., "so there won't be any problems when it comes to sharing information."
Gilmore then brought back Tony Eury Jr., who was a key member of Junior's crew from 1998 through '04. Before last season Gilmore had sent Eury to be Waltrip's crew chief. Earnhardt and Eury, who are cousins, had often bickered, and Gilmore didn't think the duo could win a Cup title together. But without Eury, Earnhardt struggled. He never clicked with new crew chief Pete Rondeau, and when Junior failed to make the Chase, Gilmore reunited him with Eury Jr. In their first race together, on Sept. 18 at New Hampshire, Earnhardt took fifth, only his sixth top five of the season. "We didn't change the teams because of a performance issue," says Earnhardt of the crew chief switch at the start of '05. "The change did what it was supposed to do. It fixed his attitude, and it fixed my attitude."
The final element in Gilmore's plan to guide the sport's most popular driver into the 2006 Chase can be summed up in one word: horsepower. For most of '05 the Bud Chevy didn't have as much power as the other elite cars. Now Gilmore, one of the sport's most respected engine builders, will spend more time in the shop. He has also reorganized his personnel in the quest for speed. "We're going to focus more on our Cup cars and not as much on our Busch program," says Gilmore. "I think we're going to surprise a lot of people in 2006."