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