Earnhardt Jr. digging deeper than ever

It was just a momentary pang. A bit of nostalgia, really. Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked over at his old partner in crime, cousin Tony Eury Jr., and caught a glimpse of him sharing a laugh at the Dale Earnhardt Inc. shop with his new teammates on the No. 15 Chevrolet squad.

No big deal, right? Except, Junior couldn't help but take a moment to acknowledge that while the duo's times together were many things -- tough, frustrating, difficult and often heated -- they also were fun.

Four races into the 2005 Nextel Cup season, and this much is no secret: Sunday has not been a very fun day for Junior and his new No. 8 Chevy team.

Following the offseason shakeup that saw the entire No. 15 and No. 8 teams trade everything they owned except their drivers, the new partnership between Junior and crew chief Pete Rondeau is under heavy scrutiny, as is the skill and talent level of Junior's new pit crew.

And as Junior is living the same old life -- dealing with heavy burdens and trying to remain understanding of the fact that he fails to meet expectations if he doesn't leave every race having firmly announced with his performance that he's going to win a title, Rondeau strives to keep things as routine as they once were, hoping he can work his way out of the funk.

Junior, after all, sits in 26th place, well off pace for finishing in the top 10 and qualifying for the Chase for the Nextel Cup this fall.

"I've got a lot more microphones in my face, now," Rondeau observed almost immediately after the switch. He might have thought he was ready for the crush of attention and questioning, but when you're the racing stilt for NASCAR's rock star, the driver who has crossed into the mainstream more than any other, it's truly unimaginable what scrutiny you will face.

Unimaginable, until now.

When the No. 8 team managed to drive up the gut of the field in the season-opening Daytona 500 for a spirited third-place finish, that's about the time that Rondeau got a hint of how unforgiving the high expectations upon Junior are, and how thankless his job can be. After all, there aren't many who would characterize a third-place run in the Great American Race as a disappointment.

But Junior won that race last year, and popular sentiment among fans asked, why couldn't he do it again?

"I understand that there's a lot of pressure that comes with working with Junior," Rondeau said. "Fans want you to win every race. [Media] want to know when he's going to win a championship. ... But I don't think about all the pressure. That's not how I work."

The stock-car racer turned chassis builder who made it to the top of his profession based on tireless work ethic is going back to his roots, hoping that long hours at the shop and non-stop churning of ideas and recalculating of strategy will right the ship.

Rondeau's blocking any notion of the consequences of being the man who headed up the operation that stunted Junior's upward climb toward consistent championship contention -- which, right or wrong, is the premature tag he's in danger of wearing.

Junior's hard at work, too. For him, though, it's a new kind of work. When the switch was made, Junior said he welcomed the opportunity to show his professionalism. He was eager to prove he could continue to thrive while ditching the informalities -- many of them the four-letter kind -- he displayed while working with his family. But out with the informalities might have gone some of the fun, too.

It's early, no doubt. But after finishing third in the Daytona 500, Junior has finished 32nd, 42nd and 24th heading into this weekend's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

His 26th-place perch in the points standings is a far cry from his previously lofty one in the top 10 -- a position which more than once prompted him to conclude that his team had the funding and resources to always finish in the top 10.

Early as it is, Junior is already in catch-up position, knowing his team has got to make a move soon before the four races turn into eight and the season is two months old and he's two bucks short.

But Junior says he's ready for the challenge. He insists he wasn't kidding when he welcomed the opportunity to work with a new team. He knew that it might be tough, but he also believed it necessary to break through as a title winner. This crew switch, Junior believes, is the key that eventually will unlock his title dreams.

"It's going to be tough," Junior said. "People are going to talk one way or another. If Tony Jr. and I had stayed together [and struggled], they would have said something anyway. When we'd get inconsistent last year, people would talk and try to figure out who was at fault. It's tough when you're walking around in that red uniform.

"Hopefully [the new crew] handle it well. There is a lot of pressure but I can see that this will go either way. Eventually we'll do what it takes to get it right and win. It starts out stumbling, then we just have to work hard to get it right."

The hard work is being done daily. Junior says he gets to have more input on strategy and setups, and that pumps him up and motivates him to continue working hard. Watching his new team wear themselves out trying to make things work is extra incentive.

Last weekend, when the team unloaded an ornery car off the truck and Junior fought with what he called one of the worst cars on the track, Junior was impressed with how hard Rondeau and crew worked to get the 8 rig working more to Junior's liking.

"I'm proud of the effort my team gave," he said. "We were really loose for most of the day, and at times it was hard to drive. But we had a car that [by the end] could've finished a lot better than it did."

The improvement was thanks to non-stop tweaks every chance the crew got to lay its hands on the red Chevy. And it's going to take a lot more effort. But those close to Junior say he's got the will and desire.

Junior has always been surprisingly upbeat. When he struggled to find consistency with his old crew, he remained optimistic and often promised that he was certain his team had turned the corner. His current optimism has not reached a level of guaranteeing progress, yet; but Martin Truex, Junior's friend, teammate and driver of the Busch car Junior partly owns, says that can't be far off.

"Their spirits are staying high," Truex said. "You know, they realize that it's going to take a little bit of time to get their stuff straightened out. They just started working together. Junior's actually been pretty happy the way his cars have been running. They just haven't seemed to be good at the start of the races. This week in Atlanta, he felt like he had a top-five or top-10 car at the end of the race; he just didn't get to show it.

"He's pretty happy with the way things are going. I guess he realizes it was going to take a little time to get things on track. He feels like they're gaining, though."

Case in point: Junior was penalized for speeding on pit road early in the Atlanta race, an unwelcome event given how hard it was to get the 8 car going there. By race's end, though, Junior was posting some fast laps and making a move to the front. With fewer than 30 laps remaining, he pit once more and was extremely confident pulling into his pit stall.

"All right guys," he said, "let's try to get us a good pit stop and get all we can get. Sometimes there's a rash of yellows at the end of these things. I'll try as hard as I can."

Just as soon as he left pit road, though, he got nabbed for speeding.

"To the tail end of the longest line," Rondeau said over the radio, relaying Junior's punishment for the infraction.

"Wow. OK," a semi-stunned Junior said. "They sure do kick a man when he's down, don't they?"

It was a sad exchange, relaying a noticeable increase of defeat in Junior's voice. But wouldn't you know it, one of his last laps was his fastest of the day. He never quit. And finishing 24th in a car the crew finally finagled to his liking, Junior walked away head held high.

And he signed autographs for his army of fans well into the night, longer than anyone else at Atlanta.

"Pete and the guys kept digging, which makes me feel good," he said. "I can sleep well at night knowing we gave it everything we had. I drove my heart out today. I'm about as tired as you can be after a 500-mile race, but I'm going to drive just as hard every time as long as my team's busting their [butts] like they're doing right now."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.