Junior fine with big change; others not sure
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It didn't take Tony Eury Jr. long to settle into his new job as crew chief for Michael Waltrip.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't be prouder of his cousin.
The moves announced in December promoted Earnhardt's uncle, Tony Eury, from crew chief on the No. 8 Chevrolet to director of competition for Dale Earnhardt Inc., moved car chief Eury Jr. to crew chief of the No. 15 Monte Carlo, brought Waltrip's crew chief, Pete Rondeau, to the same job with Earnhardt and swapped the crews, race shops and cars of the two teams.
The switches, instigated by team owner Teresa Earnhardt and motorsports director Richie Gilmore, raised many questions about why DEI would break up a team that made it into NASCAR's inaugural 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, stayed in the points battle to the final event and wound up fifth in the standings.
"I've been saying all along I don't have no problem with it,'' Earnhardt said Wednesday during a stop at the DEI shop in Mooresville by the NASCAR Nextel Cup media tour. "I wanted Tony Jr. to be a crew chief because he's at the point age-wise and experience-wise to where if he didn't have such an emotional tie to this company he could go anywhere else and get a top job.''
Earnhardt said it also was time for the elder Eury, known as Pops, to step up to a bigger challenge.
"At his age and with his experience, he has more to give than just being a crew chief in that one building over there,'' Earnhardt said. "Now, he reaches every corner of the company and has his hands in every decision we made motorsport-wise.''
Earnhardt, who previously worked with Rondeau in a couple of 2004 Busch Series appearances, likes the way things are going for his team, too.
"Now, we're in a situation working with Pete where I've got to be my own man,'' said Earnhardt, who goes into the Daytona 500 as the defending champion. "I don't have my cousin to bark at. I just think we all kind of capped each other and had each other held back.''
The younger Eury is enjoying his new challenge.
"Teresa's been trying to get me to do this for about two years now to where I'm not under the shadow of Dale Jr. or Pops,'' he said. "I can really go out and show people what I'm worth and what I'm capable of doing.
Eury's father is adjusting to his new role, but isn't very happy with the changes.
"I definitely disagree with it,'' he said. "I never agree with tearing a championship team apart. It would have kept right on going. Hopefully, it will anyway.
"We're going to Daytona with the intention of running 1-2 in the Daytona 500, even with the scramble. We've got the people here, we've got the power. There's nothing that these guys lack. If they ask for it, they get it.''
Waltrip will be seeking his third Daytona 500 victory on Feb. 20.
The two have had an uneasy relationship since last fall, when Newman bumped aside his Penske Racing South colleague late in a race at Martinsville Speedway. That knocked Wallace out of contention for a second straight Martinsville victory and left him seething.
Since then, the two have been cordial, but haven't straightened out their relationship.
"Neither one of us has had time to make it happen, but we've agreed to sit down in principle and try to work this stuff out,'' said Wallace, who is co-owner of the team with Roger Penske and Don Miller.
"The basic hang-up is I'd say a big age difference,'' said the 48-year-old Wallace, who is preparing to begin his final season in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series. Newman is 27.
But the differences between the two drivers don't end with age.
"I'm an active guy,'' Wallace said. "I talk to a lot of my peers, a lot of the crew chiefs, I like to know what I'm up against and I don't like to be so close to the forest I can't see the trees.
"Ryan and his crew chief (Matt Borland) are very, very private people. They don't like to discuss much and I have a little bit of problem with that. Hopefully, we can sit down and get the dialogue to open up more yet.''
Newman agrees that he and Wallace don't see eye-to-eye on some things, but says it shouldn't really matter.
"Everybody's different,'' Newman said. "You're a product of your environment. Rusty grew up a little different than I did and I have a different outlook on certain things.
"I'm an engineer and Rusty's not. Rusty's born and raised a short track stock car racer and I wasn't. When it comes down to it, Rusty and myself ... we're hard-nosed racers and, no matter if we're teammates or not, we go for the win. Roger Penske will never be mad at us for that.
"I don't think we need to be friends to run well. From a Rusty and Ryan standpoint, we're just going to go do our deal. We're getting along better now than we were during the last few laps at Martinsville and we'll go on.''
Penske doesn't think the situation is harmful to the team or the teammates.
"I like the idea that they're both feisty and that they want to win races,'' Penske said. "It's unfortunate we had the issue we had at Martinsville. But, at the end of the day, they know what they've got to do next year and they're professional. I don't think it's gotten out of hand.''
Penske Racing South opened the doors of its new race shop during a media tour Wednesday night, showing off the enormous building that will house its Nextel Cup operation.
"We had our people scattered over several buildings not too far from here and, half the time, you couldn't find anybody you were looking for,'' Roger Penske said. "Now, we at least know they're going to be somewhere in the building.''
It still may not be easy for Penske or anyone else to find someone in the new building.
The team is now using 300,000 of the available 425,000 square feet in the former air conditioner plant set on 104 acres in rural Mooresville, north of Charlotte. The building includes wide-open areas for each of the team's three Cup entries, including newcomer Travis Kvapil.
Overlooking the main work area is a 330-foot-long fan walk from which spectators can watch the teams work on Penske's new Dodge Chargers.
The sprawling building also includes a 120-seat auditorium, cafeteria and dozens of spacious offices.
Penske said there is enough room on the property that he is considering building a test track.
"Years ago, Rick Hendrick built the prototype of the modern race shop,'' said Humpy Wheeler, president of nearby Lowe's Motor Speedway. "Then Dale Earnhardt built his building that they still call the Garage Mahal. Now, Roger has built a shop that sets the standard, not just in NASCAR, but all of auto racing.''
Dale Jarrett and his wife, Kelley, will continue their support of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation despite the departure of associate sponsor Ford Credit from the Robert Yates Racing team.
Instead of the sponsor donating money to the charity based on Jarrett's on-track performance, the Dale Jarrett Foundation, formed in 2002, will provide funding for the new program.
The Jarretts have been involved with the Komen Foundation since 1997 and have helped raise more than $700,000. The new program will include donations ranging from $10,000 for a win by the former NASCAR Cup champion to $1,500 for 10th place. A Jarrett pole will be worth $5,000.
"It is certainly something we have been very proud to be a part of and we look forward to the day when a cure for breast cancer is found,'' Jarrett said. "We hope this new program is the beginning of something we can continue to build on in the future.''
While several of his peers have already cut back their schedules or announced impending retirements, 48-year-old Dale Jarrett isn't ready to slow down for a while.
Asked about retirement on Wednesday during a stop by the media tour at the Robert Yates Racing shop, Jarrett said he has given the subject a lot of thought.
"I've seen what some of my buddies have done, but I started later than they did,'' Jarrett said. "I still think I can compete with anybody out there and I still love to compete.''
The 1999 series champion's contract with Yates runs for two more seasons.
"I plan to continue for a minimum of two years and probably three years, if Robert, Ford and (sponsor) UPS still want me. That's what I'm looking at.''
That statement startled Ned Jarrett, Dale's father and a two-time NASCAR champion who retired from driving at the age of 34.
"That was news to me,'' the elder Jarrett said. "His mother and I just looked at each other, like, `Where did that come from?' But he's in better condition physically at 48 than I was at 34, so it shouldn't be that surprising.''
Among the other fortysomething drivers in Nextel Cup, Bill Elliott cut back to a limited scheduled in 2004, Terry Labonte will drive only 10 races in 2005 and 2006, Mark Martin is in his final season of full-time competition, and Rusty Wallace will retire after 2005.
Michael "Fatback'' McSwain, crew chief for Ricky Rudd's Wood Brothers Ford, is well on his way to a complete recovery from offseason back surgery.
"Funny enough, I had exactly the same back surgery Ricky had done in 2001,'' McSwain said. "I'm probably 85- to 90-percent back now and getting better every day.''
McSwain and Rudd worked together at Robert Yates Racing from 2000 to 2002, winning three races and four poles. But they had a public falling out midway through the 2002 season, and both ended up leaving Yates.
McSwain went to Joe Gibbs Racing as Bobby Labonte's crew chief. Rudd went to on drive the famed No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers. Gibbs released McSwain last July, and he was reunited with Rudd the following month.
"I think we both learned to appreciate what we had together while we were apart,'' McSwain said. "It's a lot like a marriage. You have to learn the give and take. I think we have a lot of good chemistry.''
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