Crew chief confident Earnhardt Jr. will rebound

LAS VEGAS -- Richie Gilmore turned to college football legend Lou Holtz to help Dale Earnhardt Jr. get through his worst start since joining the Nextel Cup series full-time in 2000.

No, he didn't employ Holtz to figure out why the engines of Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. self-destructed two weeks ago at California.

He attributed Earnhardt Jr.'s problem to a bad batch of valve springs and Truex's to an error by one of his best assemblers.

But he did start reading Holtz's latest book, "Winning Every Day, the Game Plan for Success," and gave it to a few members of Earnhardt Jr.'s team for motivation.

"He teaches you a lot about life," DEI's director of motorsports said Friday before qualifying for Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "One chapter I was reading out here was you've got to go through the bad times to get to the good times."

It can't get much worse for DEI. Earnhardt Jr. is 40th in points, finishing 38th at Daytona after getting mixed up in a late crash and 40th at California after his engine exploded.

NASCAR's most popular driver hasn't started this badly since 2003, when he opened with finishes of 36th and 33rd.

"We've always been good about getting in a hole," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said. "You can't look at the first two races and say the season's over. The first 10 are very important. It's easier to make up points in the first 10 than at any other time.

"The way the Chase is now, it helps you. A couple of years ago, you pretty much threw your season away if you had a bad first two races."

Earnhardt Jr. rallied to finish third in 2003. That and the fact he started fifth the first two weeks this season gives Eury Jr. and Gilmore reason for optimism.

Neither thinks the negotiations to re-sign Earnhardt Jr. are a distraction.

"We feel we're handling good and running good," Gilmore said. "We had a great test out here and a good [Car of Tomorrow] test, so we feel like we've got three or four good races coming up to get us back in contention."

Eury Jr. hasn't read Holtz's book, but he met the former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach when Holtz visited Dale Earnhardt Inc. to give a motivational speech after the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt.

"It was really cool," Eury Jr. said. "It's amazing to hear that man and the philosophy he looks at things."

But Eury Jr. doesn't think the team needs a pep talk as much as it needs to finish a race.

"We're fine," he said. "You just hate to use up your mulligans that early in the season. We had two last year and overcame it. It's a shame it's this early. There's nothing you can do about it. You just pick up and move on to the next week."

Gilmore agreed.

"We've done everything we can to give ourselves a good feeling," he said. "The guys have worked nonstop every day since California."

The first step was pinpointing the engine problem. The team basically tossed aside $30,000 to $40,000 worth of valve springs and turned to another batch that will get them through the seventh race at Texas.

Gilmore has ordered a new set of valve springs that should be in place by Phoenix.

"It was just an inclusion in the spring, dirty material," Gilmore said of the bad spring. "You come across that. There's no way to detect it. You just keep trying to find a better vendor with better material. It's an ongoing challenge every year."

Gilmore couldn't remember a time when DEI lost two engines in one race.

"The [Truex Jr. problem] was just a self-inflicted wound," he said. "One of our best assemblers just made an error. It's something that usually doesn't happen and I don't believe will happen again."

Eury Jr. hopes all problems are behind the organization.

"I hate to always point at one part unless you 100 percent know that is it," he said. "I can't tell you it's a motor or valve spring. I'm not a motor guy. Until the checkered flag falls on Sunday, there's a doubt in your mind it can happen this weekend."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.