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|Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. are back together, which is a combination that worked when Dale Earnhardt still owned the team.|
Since then, it's been a different story. As if running on sheer will and desire not to let the seven-time champion down, Dale Earnhardt Inc. notched four victories the year Earnhardt died, and the Richard Childress Racing team he drove for managed another checkered flag and a ninth-place points finish.
Since then, the two organizations have struggled to climb to the top. A portrait of despair no more clearly painted than in the 2005 season, when neither of DEI's two teams and not one of RCR's three cars placed among the top 10 in the final point standings.
"It's tough on all of us, the loss that we all went through," Childress said. "Hopefully, he's up there looking down and proud of what the sport has done and where the sport has gone and the many things that have happened in this sport. Five years later it sure doesn't seem like it."
Despite winning 19 races in the five years since Earnhardt died, the mood around the DEI shop the last few years is a reflection of their struggles.
With two Busch Series titles and two Truck Series titles already in hand when the 2001 season began, Earnhardt was eager for his Cup program to enter the spotlight. It looked like it was headed there, too, when Michael Waltrip rode to victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, with DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing second. Behind the two of them, though, disaster struck when Earnhardt Sr. crashed.
|“||You know, we're strong. I got the car to beat over in the garage for [this year's] 500. It's the fastest car. ”|
|— Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
Over the next three seasons, DEI claimed 12 victories and two top-10 points finishes (both Junior's). Included among the victories were four at Daytona: two Daytona 500 and two Pepsi 400 wins.
But last season, everything went wrong. Waltrip and Junior switched crews and the swap proved unfruitful. Waltrip, in the last year of his contract with DEI, announced midseason that he was leaving the No. 15 Chevy. And the No. 8, though driver secured, was in disarray.
Many figured that the adrenaline the team had run off of in the wake of Earnhardt's death had run out, and with no true leader at the helm the team was falling apart.
"It obviously would be different," Junior said, considering how things would be if his dad was still around. "But I don't spend a whole lot of time [thinking about it] because that's not -- you know, it's not going to happen. We just have to do as well as we can."
Junior said the organization is not doomed in the absence of Big E. To the contrary, he believes he witnessed, and himself experienced, a renewed commitment to excellence over the offseason. Now, a new energy courses through the organization.
"The company's really hungry as a whole," Junior said. "The company's showing a lot of fire, a lot of spark, a lot of promise. We got some guys that we're really excited about that are coming to work for us, making a few key hires."
With his team, it's the old guys that he's excited about. He's reunited with crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. and hoping that the two can repeat their top-five points performances of 2003 and 2004. In the No. 1 car now is Martin Truex Jr., fresh off back-to-back Busch Series championships. And Paul Menard will take over in the 15 car.
If anyone is to believe the new hires and the renewed commitments mean anything, though, the DEI group will need to get off to a fast start. DEI has never put more than one car in contention for a title, and even that one contender -- Junior -- has been far from winning a title. Throughout, however, the DEI cars have been reliably fast, and indeed, dominant at the superspeedways.
It was last year's absence of a DEI car taking the checkered at any superspeedway, for the first time since Earnhardt's death, that sounded the alarm on whether the organization was headed into a prolonged slump. So right away, all eyes will be fixated on the Nos. 1, 8 and 15 come Sunday for a clue as to where the program is now situated.
Junior doesn't mind.
"We had some strong cars [at Daytona] last year," he said. "I should have won the Daytona 500. If I would have made a certain move, I could have won the Daytona 500 last year. But we had a fast car at Talladega, got in a crash. I don't remember what happened the other races. I think we finished third at Daytona here. That's strong. You know, we're strong. I got the car to beat over in the garage for [this year's] 500. It's the fastest car."
Those in the upper-level DEI offices smile when they hear Junior get a little defensive about insinuations that DEI no longer has a shot at contending for Cup titles. That frustration is something that was missing in years past when Junior admits he was trying not to emotionally connect himself with the organization for fear that it would fail and he would go down with it. Instead, he tried to remain aloof and keep his other options open.
That's when, a couple years ago, he let it slip that he was interested in driving his dad's old No. 3 Chevy owned by Richard Childress Racing. The news wasn't good for either DEI or RCR, both of which have struggled since Earnhardt's death and then had to focus on off-track news while searching for on-track aid.
Now, Junior has dialed back any links to the 3 car and rededicated himself to making DEI a championship Cup organization.
"I would love to drive the 3 on down the road, and Richard knows that," he said. "I hate him talking about it, because I don't want to put it off on him, put any pressure on him or disrupt what he's trying to do with RCR to date. But he knows that. That's the extent of it. There's nothing more to it conversation-wise between me and him or anything. We've just made that clear to each other and dropped it. "I've asked him some questions. I've asked a lot of people questions that I get advice from. They've reiterated the same thing that I thought I needed to do, and that's stay devoted to what I committed to, and that's working with the 8 team at DEI, working with Tony Jr., working with [director of motor sports Richie Gilmore], and showing my commitment."
That's what he said he believes he's done. And that, more than anything, could be the biggest difference between last season's down year and this season's renewed hope.
"I've always sort of kept them at arm's length just in case something happened or just in case it didn't work out," he said. "So I think to go in this year and show them I'm in the trenches [with them], we're going to do this together every minute from mile to mile, and I think that will be more productive for the company than me standing there and saying, 'Get it right now. I'm wanting to win.'
"For me to go in there and tie myself to the boat with them I think will be better for the company. I want everybody in the company to feel like I'm dedicated."
Meanwhile, RCR is searching for that kind of dedication as it tries to emerge from the slump which ensued after Earnhardt died.
After the Daytona wreck, Kevin Harvick stepped into the Childress Racing group and, with Earnhardt's old crew, old cars (with new paint jobs and a new number) and resources, he managed to finish ninth in the standings despite racing in one less event than everyone else. Since then, Harvick has struggled and Childress has been unable to find any measure of consistency in his other teams, save a fifth-place finish for Harvick in 2003.
This year, with Jeff Burton in his second full year in the No. 31 Chevy, Childress is more hopeful. With Burton on the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500, it appears he has good reason to be.
"Jeff came in and fired me back up," Childress said. "Knowing some of the ideas and things he's brought to the table -- he's just good for the whole organization. He can look and say, 'Hey, I know we're off here or there in aero or wind tunnel or horsepower.' We've just made a lot of changes."
Harvick said the team has been in a funk since Earnhardt's death.
"Obviously, we live it every day, so it's probably a little bit different for us than it is for some people," he said of dealing with Big E's loss. "We live that, you know, from the day that it happened until right now in this moment. Obviously, it's something that everybody remembers, everybody wants to forget but you can't. You know, you go out and try to do the best you can and carry the legacy forward."
But an obstacle to that was everyone seemed a little lost after Earnhardt died. In a changing sport, nobody wanted to deviate from Earnhardt's old practices for fear of turning their backs on him. In fact, change at any level of the organization came hard.
"I think when everybody had to start thinking for themselves, figure out when it was time to change it for themselves, it wasn't -- there wasn't that reassuring voice there and that experience there to tell them that it was OK to change something, that we need to go forward," Harvick said. "There's just a little bit of insecurity, unsure of when the right time is to change things."
That insecurity has persisted five years, but Burton has helped remedy the rut. While he, too, has slumped from his prime in the late 1990s when he seemed a constant top-five finisher for Roush Racing, he is one of the more experienced and vocal leaders in the Cup garage. Nobody's arguing that he's the second coming of Earnhardt, but he takes the pressure off of Harvick so that the young California native can first figure out how to be a championship contender again.
"We have enough tools at RCR to compete at a high level," Burton said. "We have to make sure we utilize those tools and use them to the best of our advantage. That is something that we were not doing and the results showed it. One of the reasons Richard wanted me to come to RCR was to help with that. And that is what I have tried to do.
"I think we have things in place to make a lot of noise. I think we have great race teams and drivers and some of the best people in the business. We'll see what we can do with it."
Earnhardt's legacy as one of the greatest to ever sit behind a NASCAR wheel was cemented long before his death. But the tailspin by the two organizations he touched, the one he owned and the one he drove for, only underscores how central he was to the success which surrounded him.
While members of both DEI and RCR have paused to consider that, they now move on with gratitude in their hearts for what Earnhardt did when he was alive. And ambition is growing to honor him by returning to prominence on the track.
"When you lose a great driver and a great friend like that, it takes time. We came back in 2002 and Kevin won rookie of the year and finished ninth in the points and won a couple of races," Childress said. "Our whole company went into shock and probably will always be. But it's guys like Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick that have made it a little easier."We've been competitive in some races, but nothing like we have in the past. We've got to work hard. The level of competition today has really stepped up. You've just got to step up to the plate. We've definitely got everything it takes to get the job done. We've just got to pull it all together as one big team and make it happen."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.