It was just like old times for Dale Earnhardt Jr. when his team unloaded for preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway earlier this week.
Old as in 2004, back when Tony Eury Sr. was his crew chief and Tony Eury Jr. was his car chief -- and the man spending most of the time on the radio with the driver. Old as when Junior was winning six races and looking like a legitimate championship contender.
New was last year, when the decision was made to shift Eury Sr. to a management position, while elevating his son to the ranks of crew chief. But instead of pairing Eury Jr. with Earnhardt Jr., his cousin, he was put in charge of Michael Waltrip's team. Pete Rondeau was handed the keys to the No. 8 team.
In theory, the switch was meant to separate the cousins, as they'd sometimes argue the way only family members can. In reality, it only led to a miserable season. Rondeau was gone by May, with Steve Hmiel taking the reins until Eury Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. were reunited for the year's final 10 races.
The results weren't stellar by any means during that stretch, but simply being reunited has Earnhardt Jr. shooting high entering the season.
"It feels good working with Tony Jr. It feels good to go into the shop and talk to him about the cars, and know when he is talking about his cars, he is talking about my cars, too," Earnhardt Jr. says. "It feels good and I'm looking forward to getting some races under our belts, getting into victory lane as fast as we can, and start knocking off some wins."
A relationship that once soured to the point where the cousins didn't speak to each other during the season finale at Homestead in '04 is now back on track. And that's why, no matter how tough last year was on the track, Earnhardt Jr. still doesn't regret the change.
"It's bigger than anything that you guys know about," he said. "It's bigger than the sport and my success as a driver. It was about me and my cousin not getting along. That was more important to me. It wasn't about trying to be more successful or winning more races or being a champion. I didn't want to get to the point to where I couldn't stand my cousin anymore. That would be hard-core.
"I'm proud of him and I feel honored that we grew up together and that he's been able to accomplish what he's accomplished and he's going to be one of the best crew chiefs in the business. He'll be on that list 50 years from now. I just didn't want us to have a falling out and I felt like we were getting real bitter toward each other. The company wasn't gaining anything by the situation as it imploded, so we needed to make a change."
New DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr. described what he believes he's seen from afar.
[Earnhardt Jr.] and Tony Jr., used to bicker like brother and sister, or brothers because that's kind of what they were, and they realize now that they appreciate each other a whole lot more than they used to, and their relationship is a lot stronger," Truex said. "That's probably one of the biggest lessons they've learned that I can see
from the outside looking in. I'm not real sure about all the stuff, but I'm sure the way he talks about it, it was a good learning year for him.
"He didn't take much out of it, but he learned a lot that he's going to be able to use in the future, I think."
Earnhardt Jr. admits the team might have changed things around differently in order to be successful last season. That, though, is the past. The two Juniors are on the same page now and that's all that matters in Earnhardt Jr.'s eyes.
"We've got everybody [at Dale Earnhardt Inc.], pretty much on board and we're focused and looking forward to [this] season. That was one thing I was worried about was the company losing sight of what was going on and losing hope on the fact that we could turn it around. I think we'll be strong and be able to complement each other now. We've worked hard and improved.
"Our motors have improved. We've worked really hard in the engine shop. We've studied these new noses and tails [the Chevrolets are using this year] over the last six months really hard and tested a lot of that stuff. This is where we start to climb back up the hill. Hopefully in two or three years we can be proud of ourselves and what we've been able to accomplish."
A meeting three-quarters of the way through last season set things in motion. Earnhardt Jr. simply asked his cousin whether he'd want him as his driver sometime in the future. The answer was exactly that the driver wanted to hear.
"[Eury Jr.] said some things that he normally wouldn't say and one of them was that he really had a lot of -- I don't want to over-quote him here -- but that he really had a lot of confidence in my abilities," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That's something he never even said before. When I was coming up in the Late Models, he had a Late Model too and we were real competitive. If he stayed after it, he could have been as good or better than me as a driver -- coming from a driving family and whatnot. He'd have had the same opportunities.
"And he can build a hell of a race car, so there he wouldn't have had a problem with his equipment. We basically confessed our intentions as far as I wanted to work with him and he wanted to work with me, we wanted to do it as soon as we possibly could. We felt a lot better about each other's appreciation and respect for each other and how we thought a lot of each other's abilities more so than we had in the past. That was sort of the defining moment if there was one."
As rough as last season was, Earnhardt Jr. says his confidence never wavered. In fact, the struggles have his confidence at a new high entering the season.
"My confidence was great last year because I was getting a lot out of the race car. I was taking my car and I was doing things with it that I hadn't been able to do before," he said. "They were good cars and a lot of times they drove good, but there was a lot of times when they didn't, and we were still able to fight real real hard and do some pretty cool stuff, so that was fun.
"A lot of times it's just real easy to settle or just take what you get. There were a few races when we refused to do that and ended up getting a pretty dang good finish with it. Those were some times when my confidence improved a lot and made me feel a lot better about myself."
"Tony Jr. can build a great race car and about anybody in this garage can drive it to the front. I never really had myself tested before, and last year I was tested pretty good on a couple occasions and I was able to do what I needed to do. It was a good feeling. Not only was I aware of it, the people that I was working with were aware of it and they would tell me that, so that was a good feeling."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com