Loomis says Petty Enterprises will get back to Victory Lane ... quickly

Updated: January 24, 2008, 10:45 AM ET

AP Photo/Bob Jordan

Robbie Loomis, left, vows Petty Enterprises will win a race within the first eight dates of 2008.

Bold Prediction

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Petty Enterprises left its longtime home in Level Cross, N.C., in an effort to return to the form that saw it dominate the sport with Richard Petty behind the wheel. The goal is to win, and Robbie Loomis said Wednesday that will happen within the year's first eight races.

Loomis believes the combination of driver Bobby Labonte and new crew chief Jeff Meendering will hit the ground running. He feels the team has the handle on the "new car" that teams will run full time this year and that it won't take half a season for things to come together.

"We're trying to get the team more organized to where Jeff can spend more time with Bobby and understand his wants and needs so we can get [those setups] in the car quicker," Loomis said. "Then lay a better foundation under Jeff so we're getting those things in the car.

"I'll be honest with you, I feel we'll win in the first eight races. Everybody knows Atlanta's in those races [where Labonte has six wins]. We did the tire test down there and with the Car of Tomorrow that racetrack is going to provide a different race anyway."

Before hearing about Loomis' prediction, Labonte was already busy singing the praises of Meendering, who was Jeff Gordon's car chief at Hendrick Motorsports last year. Asked if the team's ready to win, he replied "Yes," without hesitating.

"I do believe with a lot of the things that we have -- we don't have the resources that a Gibbs, or Hendrick or Roush has -- but at the same time, last year we didn't run as good, but we had more consistency. This year, I think we're going to have a lot better races, so I do feel like we have a commitment -- to be able to do that.

"We just have to implement it all together, and I think Jeff's going to be a great asset for us. We just have to prove it on the racetrack. In my heart, I do feel like he's the guy to help take us to the next level."

Loomis' prediction that it would take just eight races surprised Labonte.

"That's good, I'm glad," he said. "Then I won't have to worry about it later [in the season]."

Hands-On Crew Chief

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Eury Jr. is beyond a kid in a candy store. A gadget freak, he's not content to simply watch the Hendrick Motorsports engineers use the tools designed to propel Dale Earnhardt Jr. back into the winner's circle this season.

No, Eury Jr. wants to not only learn what each machine can do, but how to work them himself.

"I have wore [the engineers] out," Eury Jr. said Wednesday. "I'm like a kid going to college. I'm probably a little different [than some crew chiefs]. I've asked them, 'Do you know how to run [a simulator]?' He'll say, 'No, but my engineer does. He just brings me the [results].'

"I want to run it myself, and that's the way I've always been. I'm grateful for people helping me and handing me stuff, but if I'm sitting on the couch this Sunday and I come up with something off the top of my head that I want to try at Vegas [during testing] and I've got to run it through a program to see if it works, I want to know how to do it. I don't want to have to call a guy on the phone and say, 'Will you mind telling your wife to just chill for a little bit and do this for me?'

"I'm not like that. Chad [Knaus] is probably the same way -- you've got to breathe this stuff 24-7 to be successful at it and that's what I think I do."

Owner Rick Hendrick has been impressed by Eury's work ethic. He said keeping Earnhardt and his cousin together as driver and crew chief will be vital to how well Earnhardt adapts to being with a new team after having only driven for Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the Cup level.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.



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Hendrick: NASCAR In 'Pretty Good Shape'

While there have been signs that the NASCAR bubble has burst, Rick Hendrick doesn't see the glass as anywhere close to being half-empty.

He agrees that the proliferation of NASCAR shows available and an abundance of coverage on the Internet has made it easier for fans to keep up with the sport, even if some of the evolution may have led some to decide it's easier to simply watch races from home.

"The die-hards are used to seeing 50,000-seat venues -- and now they're 120,000 and it takes a lot of time to get out of the track, and TV's made it easy," Hendrick said. "Back in the day when I was going [as a fan] you didn't have that much coverage.

"… I think this sport's in pretty good shape. I look at the sponsors we have and they're all happy. We haven't lost a single sponsor due to the economy and we haven't had a single sponsor pull out and say, 'We don't want to come back because we think the thrill is gone or the marketability has gone [away].' "

'Junior's In The House'

Usually, you have to fight through the crowd to get close to Jeff Gordon when the Sprint Cup media tour visits Hendrick Motorsports. This year, it wasn't quite as hard.

"Junior's in the house," Gordon said with a laugh Wednesday, referring to new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. "How's the two-time defending champion looking?"

Told that the throng wasn't as deep around Jimmie Johnson, either, Gordon smiled. Yes, it's one big, happy family at HMS these days.

Gordon was asked if he felt slighted that NASCAR CEO Brian France said the sport's TV ratings would be better if Earnhardt returns to Victory Lane this season. Some blamed last year's decline in ratings on the dominance of Johnson and Gordon, who combined for 16 wins and finished first and second in the points.

"It's reality," Gordon said. "If we don't recognize that, then we're foolish. I think all of us, and I think Jimmie's a prime example -- he's a two-time defending champion and a top driver in our sport, but he's not the most popular driver. That just shows you that it's not all about on-track performance.

"Dale's in a very unique situation. He didn't necessarily ask for it, but he handles it very well and he has to take advantage of it. If that's what's good for the sport, then I'm glad that he's over here in our organization. I've been around long enough to understand where my place is and what I want out of it, and I'm not trying to outdo anybody. I'm just trying to be the best I can be and be competitive.

"The fans have a choice. The fans that I have our very loyal and I love them. The fans that don't pull for me, I love their passion and their ability to pull for whoever they want to pull for."