It's time for DEI to step on the gas

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. have a big job ahead to pull even with NASCAR'S elite.

Published February 10, 2006

DAYTONA BEACH - Dale Earnhardt and Tony Eury at first had simple, then grand plans for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Both had a son and namesake they hoped would compete at NASCAR's highest level. First they would learn at DEI. Then they would win championships there.

As Eury, Earnhardt's brother-in-law, put it, "We were going to teach these kids how to race and we were going to sit on the porch and drink beer and watch them."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., buttressed by his late father's fans and a combination of good-old-boy image and new-age marketing, is NASCAR's most popular driver and in seven seasons a 16-time winner, including the 2004 Daytona 500. Tony Eury Jr., a Dale Earnhardt Inc. employee for 15 years and Junior's car chief until last year, was named his crew chief late last season.

But things are not well at Nextel Cup's most scrutinized team. DEI is in flux as Speedweeks begins today at Daytona International Speedway. The team appears nowhere near ready to play on the level of megateams Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, which have combined to win 94 races (47 each) and three titles (two by Roush) since 2000. Or even Joe Gibbs Racing, which has 27 wins and three titles in the same span.

The way DEI stumbled last year, with Earnhardt Jr. 19th in points and teammate Michael Waltrip 25th, the team must regain speed quickly or become one of the other middling teams that increasingly have to be happy picking off wins here and there, much like Richard Childress Racing has become since Earnhardt's death.

"I'm sure (Earnhardt Sr. would) like to see some things a little different to where they were more competitive," Childress said of DEI's fortunes. "No different from me, I'd like to see things where RCR is more competitive."

Richie Gilmore knows what Earnhardt wanted. And with the late legend's imprint still vivid at DEI, the man who led the team's once-dominant engine-building program and now the whole show as director of motorsports knows this season will be critical.

"I think it's a fair assessment and I think we're up for that challenge," Gilmore said. "I think it is fair to say that we have to prove and kind of start all over."

Earnhardt, who would like to eventually run DEI, said no one could be sure how things might have been different for the company had his father not died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

"It obviously would be different, but I don't spend a whole lot of time (on that) because that's not ... you know, it's not going to happen," he said. "We just have to do as well as we can."

Earnhardt will have to do better this season. Last year, coming off a six-win season and fifth-place points finish, he started fifth and finished third in the Daytona 500 but won just once. He was in the top 10 just three of 36 weeks, never after the 11th race at Richmond, and finished 40th or worse six times.

New crew chief Pete Rondeau was replaced after Richmond, but team technical director Steve Hmiel did not fare much better. Earnhardt led just 169 laps all season, 142 of them at Atlanta with four races left, where he eventually finished fourth. Even with a fifth-place finish at New Hampshire and an eighth at Texas in the last 10 races of the season - when Eury Jr. took over to prepare for this season - the No. 8 team was rarely a factor. Earnhardt's points finish was his worst as a full-time driver in NASCAR's top series.

Earnhardt and Eury Jr. claim they have reconciled a personal relationship that prompted Gilmore to make the ill-fated swap of their teams (Earnhardt's and Waltrip's) at the beginning of last year. Even though that problem has been fixed, apparently, Earnhardt's subsequent flop has sparked questions about whether he is truly one of the sport's elite drivers or a product of the right last name and right situation.

"I think Junior has all of the talent in the world, and I think he had to go through a season like he did last year to maybe realize what type of team he had," Gilmore said. "I think he's probably more determined now for his self and his team, maybe not to prove everybody wrong, because I think he's always had the confidence he could do it, but I think now he knows it's a whole team effort, that a driver can't carry a team. It takes a whole team to do it."

A modernized team. Both Earnhardt and Eury are throwbacks to a time when their fathers used feel and smarts to win races. Science has overtaken intuition and corporate structure dominates where once a small group could successfully run an entire race team. Gilmore has spoken in the past of the need to emulate teams such as Roush.

Earnhardt thinks the relatively few rules changes to the cars this season could benefit him because, "It's hard to try and get any footing and you feel like you can't build off of the last year 'cause you're starting over every time as a driver because it feels different every time you get in a car."

That said, Earnhardt does not seem to suffer from any lack of confidence. He predicted he would have seven wins and be in the top three in points by the time the Chase for the Championship begins this year.

"I have good confidence in myself, but I don't know if I have realized my potential, personally," he said. "I don't know if I've realized exactly how capable of driving a race car I am. With that said, I still feel like I got pretty much most of the field covered, but I still think there is a lot more to it and a lot more to learn. There's a lot more to know exactly what I'm feeling and how to get that to go around the race track as fast as I can."

A year after providing one of the few positives for DEI by winning his second consecutive Busch Series title, Martin Truex Jr. will have more expected of him, driving the No. 1 Chevrolet as a Nextel Cup rookie. Waltrip was phased out last season.

Borrowing from the methods of Hendrick and Roush, DEI will move Earnhardt's and Truex's operations into a common shop by March and supposedly enhance cooperation between Eury and Truex crew chief Kevin Manion that all boast as sound.

Gilmore hopes Truex's positive momentum can help jolt Earnhardt's program in the direction he wants. It had better, he said.

"If you have two bad seasons, everyone wonders where you are going next," he said.

"We need to get back in the Chase, get back to winning races and then last year will go away."

And, as usual, the Daytona 500 will be key. Even amid his worst season as full-time driver in any of NASCAR's top series, Earnhardt Jr.'s amazing aptitude for the 2.5-mile expanse and 31-degree banks of the superspeedway produced third-place finishes in both the 500 and Pepsi 400.

"I think the big thing is starting the season off running good," Gilmore said. "It's important. Getting everyone to buy in that it's back."

Because once you cross that road, it's a long way back.