Junior says faster cars are on the way

Updated: June 3, 2005, 3:45 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

By the time they get to Dover, it's a good bet that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip will be singing a happier tune.

Only the drivers – and possibly their crews at Dale Earnhardt Inc. – will know whether or not any differences between them – real or perceived – have been ironed out. Still, it's doubtful they'll air any more dirty laundry in public, or continue to stoke a fire that flared up after Junior got into the back of Waltrip's Chevrolet during the Coca-Cola 600.

As Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's uncle and the team's director of competition, pointed out, there are enough things going on at DEI that the organization doesn't need a rift between its drivers as well.

And Eury knows the team needs to focus on finding more consistent race cars – and not wrecking them – if the team is to get its drivers into the 10-man Chase for the Nextel Cup in September.

DEI has struggled this year and it's uncertain as to whether last week's crew-chief change for Earnhardt will be enough to turn things around.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. dropped to 15th in points after the Coca-Cola 600.

For whatever reason – be it a failure to communicate or simply growing pains that would have been smoothed out with time – things never clicked between Earnhardt and Pete Rondeau.

That, though, was only part of the problem. The team's cars haven't been quite right aerodynamically at a number of the 1.5-mile speedways, though that problem doesn't appear to be nearly as severe this year.

But in a season dominated by drivers from Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing, it's obvious something has been missing. Steve Hmiel, Earnhardt's interim crew chief, thinks the problem is that DEI hasn't run its operation the way those other teams have.

Hendrick Motorsports has the teams of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in one shop and moved the teams of Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch into a new shop, along with Terry Labonte's part-time team, before this season. Roush Racing has a similar setup with its five full-time teams sharing two buildings.

That leads to a better sharing of information between the teams, something that apparently has not been happening between the teams of Earnhardt and Waltrip. Hmiel aims to fix that problem.

"Richie [Gilmore, the team's vice president] and myself and Tony Sr. and Tony [Eury] Jr. [Waltrip's crew chief] and all the other crew chiefs have talked a lot this week and we're going to a strictly open-book policy where we'll use engineering unilaterally," Hmiel said last week.

"We'll bounce aerodynamic things off each other. Our tire guys will work together. It'll be more similar to what the teams that are winning all the races are doing. That's talking amongst themselves and using all the assets that are available to them to become a better race team.

"Pete wasn't against that. We just weren't at that point in our company's history. The thing that needs to be said about all this is that if it failed [now that Hmiel's working with Earnhardt], it's because I didn't use the people that are there. And if it succeeds, it's because all the people that were there did it – not because it had anything to do with me. It's just a matter of taking the personal face off the crew chief and making DEI an entity that can win races regardless of who's sitting on top of the pit box."

Crew chief candidates
Pete Rondeau has been relieved of his duties and Steve Hmiel is only the interim answer. Who will DEI hire as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s permanent crew chief? Here are some of the names being bandied about:

Jimmy Elledge: Crew chief for Chip Ganassi driver Casey Mears and Earnhardt Jr.'s brother-in-law. Considering family conflicts wore on the No. 8 team last season, such a marriage seems unlikely.

Robby Reiser: Won a championship with Matt Kenseth in 2003. But with the No. 17 struggling this season (23rd in points), is it time for Reiser to move on?

Bob Osborne: Calling the shots for Roush Racing sensation Carl Edwards this season, Osborne is believed to be in high demand.

For that to happen, though, the cars need to be better than they have been, and the team is hoping a new chassis will be the answer.

While some teams use chassis built in-house to incorporate details that make them more suitable to their driver's styles, DEI is taking a chassis it bought from a manufacturer and modifying it in an attempt to develop a feel that works best for Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr.

The chassis has been tested at Kentucky Speedway, but DEI has yet to try it in a race just yet.

Truex almost drove the chassis at Charlotte, but went with a more proven car. Earnhardt thinks it will make a big difference once the refined car becomes part of his arsenal.

Still, a period of adaptation comes any time there's a change within an organization. DEI might adapt quickly – at least that's what Junior's hoping for, as he's not about to write off this season just yet.

He believes DEI's on the verge of turning things around in a big way.

"We've never had a full grasp on being a dominant team within any part of the season," Earnhardt said of past seasons, such as last year's six-win effort. "We've put together strings of top fives and wins last year and stuff like that, but I think we're just around the corner from going to the race track and having good driving cars every week right off the trailer.

"NASCAR and Goodyear and with the changes that happen year after year after year, you really have to be on top of what's going on. It comes down to the engineers during the offseason, as to who can figure out where you need to be before you ever get on the race track. Unfortunately this year, I think we didn't guess enough or didn't guess right for a while. So it's taking us a while to get to where we can go to the race track and feel like we're coming off the trailer in the ballpark."

His focus now is on getting into the Chase. Barring a massive turnaround, he'll likely enter in the bottom half of the top 10, but he says simply making the Chase is all that matters.

"With what Kurt [Busch] did last year, he kind of came from the back burner to win the thing," Earnhardt said. "So, I think we've got a good enough team to make it and once we get there, hopefully by that part of the season – with the summer to learn and gain more knowledge and get faster and get more competitive – hopefully by that point, we'll be a strong enough team to put up a fight for it."

Even if that's the case, he will still likely be looking for a crew chief to take over on a full-time basis for 2006. By making the change in May, Earnhardt said he wanted outsiders to know the team was willing to consider all options when building for the future.

And he knows just what he's looking for in his next boss. That will be someone who can communicate with him without fighting like he did with Eury Jr., his cousin. And it will be someone who isn't as quiet and calm, as apparently was the case with Rondeau.

And it will be someone ready to deal with the task at hand in a hurry.

"It was situation where I guess we want results now, we were looking for results now," Earnhardt said of replacing Rondeau. "We understand how the change that the swap within the teams, the change within the teams, would take a little bit of time to gel, but we still expected more success from our teams.

"As a whole, with the people we have within the company, we have the best people. With the race cars that we're building right now with the engine program turning itself around, all the things that are happening within the company, we expect our cars should be able to go to the race track and be a lot stronger than they are. So, we're doing what we can and how we can to get them that way."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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