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Steve Hmiel, the longtime technical director at Dale Earnhardt Inc., will replace Pete Rondeau on an interim basis beginning with this weekend's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Hmiel has often stood in as Earnhardt's spotter on race day.
Rondeau took over at the beginning of the season after a shakeup at Dale Earnhardt Inc. sent Junior's longtime crew to teammate Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt got Waltrip's crew and seemed to be adapting to the new leadership after finishing third in the season-opening Daytona 500. Instead, the team slipped into a terrible slump and dropped as low as 27th in the points standings.
Earnhardt has just five top 10 finishes in 11 races this year, but in a more telling sign, he did not battle for the wins at either Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway -- the two tracks he has dominated the past few years.
"We are capable of consistently winning and are focused on that as a company," Richie Gilmore, vice president of DEI, said in a statement. "We are going to concentrate our efforts on improved results with the No. 8 car."
Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, heads into Sunday's race ranked 11th in the standings. He is still in contention to qualify for NASCAR's 10-race championship playoffs, but the crew chief change shows that DEI has gotten nervous about where Earnhardt's team currently stands.
"We have high expectations of how our teams are to perform and we will utilize every resource we have to win races," Gilmore said. "Our primary objective is to get (Earnhardt) and (Waltrip) solidly into the Chase for the Championship and as a company, we're focusing everything we have at that goal."
The shakeup of crews at DEI before the season raised eyebrows in the NASCAR garage. Earnhardt only had experience working with the tandem of Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., his uncle and cousin.
The Eurys led Earnhardt to the Busch Series title in 1998 and '99 , and went with him to the Cup series in 2000. Earnhardt went on to win 15 races with the Eurys, including the Daytona 500 last season, and finished a career-best third in the points in 2003.
But Eury Sr. was named director of competition at DEI in December and Eury Jr. was named Waltrip's crew chief. He took most of Earnhardt's crew with him to Waltrip's team.
"I guess, it's a big gamble in a way," Earnhardt said when he announced the crew changes.
Earnhardt said at the time a change was needed because he often clashed with Eury Jr.
"I really like working with Tony Jr., but, at the same time, the bad times were really, really bad," Earnhardt said. "I told him, 'I don't want to lose you as a cousin and lose the family and friendship side of it. I don't care if we ever talk about race cars again as long as you come over to the house and we visit each other all the time.'
"I think he can have a lot more success with another race car driver than he could with me because we were so stubborn and disrespectful to each other."
Rondeau, who finished 2004 as Waltrip's crew chief and was crew
chief for Earnhardt in a Busch series win, will remain with DEI.