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Fast From the Get-Go
Compiled by Trisha Blackmar
November 30, 2005
Hoping to make the Chase? Then you'd better be ready to run hard all the way from Daytona to Richmond
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November 30, 2005

Fast From The Get-go

Hoping to make the Chase? Then you'd better be ready to run hard all the way from Daytona to Richmond

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5/29 COCA-COLA 600
WINNER: Jimmie Johnson POLE SITTER: Ryan Newman
CURRENT POINTS LEADER: Jimmie Johnson, 1,747 (+71 over Greg Biffle)
WHAT HAPPENED: Johnson (left) earned his third consecutive victory at the Coca-Cola 600, edging out Bobby Labonte, who was trying to end a 47-race winless streak on the 10th anniversary of the first victory of his Cup career
THIS RACE IN 2006: May 28, Fox/FX

WINNER: Greg Biffle POLE SITTER: Jimmie Johnson
CURRENT POINTS LEADER: Jimmie Johnson, 1,912 (+46 over Greg Biffle)
WHAT HAPPENED: In winning for a series-high (to that point) fourth time, Biffle avoided wrecking--at least until after the crash-filled race at the Monster Mile, when he drove his number 16 Ford into the wall during his celebratory burnout.
THIS RACE IN 2006: June 4, Fox/FX

At Charlotte, Junior (8) and Waltrip tangled--and provided a fitting image of DEI's woeful season.

TROUBLE SPOT: Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Surviving a Real Back-and-Forth Season
IT ALL seemed to make sense back at Daytona last February, the Big Swap at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. The opening race of the 2005 season was three days away, and Richie Gilmore, the director of motor sports at DEI, was leaning against a stack of tires in the garage, talking about his off-season decision to switch the cars, crews and--most significant--the crew chiefs of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. "I think this move will work out for the best for everyone," said Gilmore. "Some days Junior and Tony Eury Jr. [Earnhardt's crew chief in '04] were best friends, some days they were archenemies. Something had to be done."

As every fan knows, it didn't work out. The matching of Earnhardt with Pete Rondeau, who had been Waltrip's crew chief, sputtered from the start. Rondeau, one of the most introverted guys in the sport, and the mercurial Earnhardt struggled constantly to communicate. When Junior described what he was feeling while driving the car, Rondeau would have trouble decoding the words and deciding what needed to be done.

Midway through the regular season, with Junior standing 11th in points, Rondeau was fired. But even that moment was not the low point for DEI; the nadir came a few days later at the Coca-Cola 600, when Junior bumped into Waltrip, causing them both to wreck. For months there had been rumors that Waltrip's days at DEI were numbered, and after the crash it was clear that Little E and Waltrip would not be teammates for long. ( Waltrip announced on Sept. 23 that he will race for Dodge owner Bill Davis in '06.)

When Junior failed to qualify for the Chase, Gilmore announced a third change in leadership: Steve Hmiel, who'd been Junior's interim crew chief following Rondeau's dismissal, would move back to his old job as the team's technical director, and Eury would return as crew chief for the Chevy.

Big Swap Part II makes sense. Though Eury and Earnhardt often squabble over seemingly trivial matters (they're cousins and they bicker like only family members can), they excel at making adjustments on the fly. They worked together from 1998 through the end of 2004 and during that time won two Busch Series titles and 15 Nextel Cup races. In their first race together in '05, the Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire on Sept. 18, Junior had his best performance in months, qualifying third and finishing fifth.

Tony Stewart swept to victory on the road course at Sonoma for the first of five wins in seven races.

IT PUTS an asterisk beside [the win], because I really wanted to race Gordon.
-- TONY STEWART after transmission problems forced Jeff Gordon from the race.

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