With a reconfigured car and improved teamwork, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has quietlycrept into contention for the Cup chase
Back in the summerof 1994 Tony Eury Jr. saw the same scene unfold nearly every morning. As heperformed odd jobs at Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s race shop in Mooresville, N.C., Eurywould look out the front window across Highway 115 a little past 7:30 and see19-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. roaring out of his driveway in his red '90Silverado. Little E was regularly late for his job--changing oil at his dad'scar dealership--and his habitual tardiness prompted Eury to wonder, Will myscrawny little cousin ever become a responsible adult?
"A lot of usasked that question then," says Eury, who is now Earnhardt Jr.'s crewchief, with a laugh. "But this year his commitment to the team--doingthings like taking time to tell me what's going on with the car--is the reasonwhy we're where we are. He has matured."
After finishingfifth on Sunday in the USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway--Earnhardt'seighth top 15 finish in his last nine races--Junior and his number 8 Budweiserteam are third in the Nextel Cup standings. Earnhardt has won only one racethis year, but he has steadily moved up in the points standings over the lasttwo months. It's hard for NASCAR's most popular driver to do anything under theradar, but Junior's ascent this season has been remarkably quiet; the sea ofred-clad Earnhardt fans at Chicagoland made more noise when Jeff Gordon spunout Matt Kenseth late in the race than they did when Junior crossed the finishline for his sixth top five finish of the season.
At this juncturelast 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 motorsports at Dale Earnhardt Inc., called a dozen of DEI's top people into ameeting to discuss the future of the company. Gilmore told his crew chiefs andtop engine builders, engineers and fabricators that there was only one way tomake the DEI Chevys of Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. championship-caliberin '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 ofthe 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]. Everyonemust get in line with this. If you don't, you should leave right now."
Team membersstarted sharing notes on everything from aerodynamics to gear ratios. "Wehave a completely open-book policy among the teams now," says Eury Jr."We didn't have that last year."
Eury alsoreconfigured the body design of the number 8 Chevy, which has improved theaerodynamics of the car and allowed its wheels to gain better traction throughthe turns. Late Sunday afternoon, after Earnhardt had parked his Chevy alongpit 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 askedif this will be the year he wins his first title. "We're like aprizefighter 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 morepower in the engine and be a little quicker through the corners, then we'llreally be somebody to be reckoned with."
Nasty Spin Cycle
On March 26 atBristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth (below, top) and Jeff Gordon(bottom) were running in the top five late in the race when Kenseth nudged thenose of his number 17 Ford into the tail of Gordon's number 24 Chevy. The movecaused Gordon to crash; on pit road later, he shoved Kenseth.
On Sunday, Gordongot more payback. With four laps to go and Kenseth in the lead, Gordon pulled asimilar bump-and-run maneuver, which sent Kenseth spinning into the infield.Gordon pulled away to win his second race of the season; Kenseth wound up22nd.
"That wasn'tan accident," fumed Kenseth, who remained second in the points standings."He just ran over me."
Gordon wasunapologetic. "Because of what happened in Bristol, I'm not saying I wasgoing to wreck him," he said. "But you'd better believe I was going tomake life difficult for him."
The win movedGordon up two spots in points, to 10th, but he can't afford any morefender-benders--intentional or not--over the final eight races of NASCAR'sregular season. Stay tuned.
• Read more aboutNASCAR at SI.com/racing.
DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES (EARNHARDT)
BUD INBLOOM Earnhardt had plenty to smile about after getting his sixth top fivefinish.
NAM Y. HUH/AP
NIGEL KINRADE (KENSETH, GORDON)